Reuters – Democratic Senator John Kerry (C) makes a statement after a closed session about the new START treaty …
WASHINGTON – The Senate is poised to approve on Wednesday a major nuclear arms pact with Russia, handing President Barack Obama a huge victory on his top foreign policy priority.
Passage of the New START treaty appeared assured after 11 Republicans joined Democrats in a vote Tuesday to end debate on the pact. That signaled that Obama should have the two-thirds majority he needs when the Senate votes on final approval later Wednesday.
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The approval would mark a big comeback for Obama's arm controls efforts after the treaty appeared all but dead just weeks ago. It also would allow Obama to continue efforts to improve relations with Russia.
Ratification would mark a third recent major political victory for Obama, even though his Democratic party was trounced in last month's congressional elections. In recent days he won passage of a bipartisan tax deal and a vote ending the ban on gays openly serving in the military.
"We are on the brink of writing the next chapter in the 40-year history of wrestling with the threat of nuclear weapons," said Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass.
The White House said Obama hoped to have a press conference Wednesday.
The treaty would limit each country's strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200. It also would establish a system for monitoring and verification. U.S. weapons inspections ended last year with the expiration of a 1991 treaty.
The administration was adamant that it be ratified this year because the Democrats' majority in the Senate is set to shrink by five in January and waiting could have meant months of delay or defeat.
Republicans accused Democrats of rushing approval of the treaty for political reasons. They have asserted it would limit U.S. missile defense options and argued it has insufficient procedures to verify Russia's adherence.
When Jon Kyl of Arizona, the leading Republican on negotiations over the treaty, suggested a delay last month, Obama appeared unlikely to find the nine Republican votes needed for passage.
But he and top members of his administration lobbied intensely, with Obama postponing his Christmas vacation in Hawaii. They enlisted support from top military officials and big-name Republicans from past administrations who argued the treaty was essential for U.S. national security.
In the end, they persuaded enough Republicans to defy the party's top two leaders in the Senate and support the pact.
"We know when we've been beaten," Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah told reporters hours before Tuesday's vote.
Even the Senate's No. 3 Republican, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, endorsed the accord, saying he was assured U.S. defenses would not be weakened.
The treaty will leave the United States "with enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker to kingdom come," Alexander said on the Senate floor.
Republicans had tried to kill the treaty by forcing changes in its language that would have sent it back for negotiations with Moscow. Democrats sought to appease some Republican senators by letting them raise these issues in legislation accompanying the treaty that would not directly affect the pact.
On Wednesday, two such amendments, one on missile defense and one on funding for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, passed with support from both parties.
McCain, who sponsored the missile defense amendment, has not indicated whether he will support the treaty, but said passage was likely.
"I know what the votes are going to be on this treaty," he said.
But most Republicans remained opposed.
"The administration did not negotiate a good treaty," Kyl said. "They went into the negotiations it seems to me with the attitude with the Russians just like the guy who goes into the car dealership and says, `I'm not leaving here until I buy a car.'"
Though Kyl looks likely to vote on the losing side of the debate over the treaty, in his negotiations with the administration he did win Obama's commitment to modernize the remaining nuclear arsenal with projected spending of $85 billion over 10 years.
Some of that money is now in the pipeline, contained in a stopgap government funding bill that cleared Congress on Tuesday. The measure would finance the government, mostly at current levels, through March 4.
It makes an exception for nuclear security programs, allowing the government to spend money to modernize the United States' nuclear arsenal at a rate equal to Obama's $624 million request.