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Senate passes New START treaty

By a vote of 71-26, senators approve the strategic nuclear arms pact between the United States and Russia. Ratification, over Republican objections, accomplishes President Obama's major foreign policy goal of the lame-duck session.

December 22, 2010|By James Oliphant and Michael Muskal, Washington bureau

The Senate ratified the strategic nuclear arms treaty between the United States and Russia on Wednesday, fulfilling President Obama's major foreign policy goal for the lame-duck session.

By 71-26, the Senate approved the treaty, known as New START, which Republicans had blocked. A jubilant Vice President Joe Biden announced the results in his role as the Senate's presiding officer.

Top Republicans continued to oppose the treaty, but 13 Republicans crossed over to vote for pact. Fifty-six Democrats and the two independents who caucus with them voted for the agreement.

Under the treaty, Russia and the United States agree to limit the number of nuclear warheads to 1,550 each, down from the ceiling of 2,200. The pact also establishes a system for monitoring and verification. The treaty was signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on April 8.

Passage seemed assured on Tuesday when 11 Republicans joined 56 Democrats to vote for cloture on the measure.

Even though passage had been expected, some Republicans continued their opposition right up to the final vote.

Speaking on the floor of the Senate on Wednesday morning, Sen. John Cornyn (R- Texas) argued that the treaty should be defeated because it fails to address limits on tactical weapons, an area in which Russia has a numerical advantage. Tactical weapons are smaller and designed for use on the battlefield, as opposed to strategic weapons, which are delivered by missile, bomber or from a submarine.

Cornyn also cited past Republican objections, including that the pact's "verification provisions are weak, allowing only 18 inspections a year for more than 1,500 weapons."

"And as we have discussed, the preamble is ambiguous," the Republican insisted, arguing it would limit the United States' ability to deploy a missile defense system.

Democrats insist that there is no linkage on missile defense and that the United States is free to deploy a system in Europe. The Obama administration has also argued that the treaty is needed to step up verification. Top Pentagon officials have backed the administration in recent briefings.

Arms limitation agreements have generally been bipartisan over the decades. The current START pact was endorsed by six former secretaries of State who worked in Republican administrations and by past presidents from both parties.

The partisan politics of ratification were clear in the debate. In his comments, Cornyn mentioned the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Obama in the early days of his administration. The citation praised Obama for creating a new climate in international politics, Cornyn noted.

"You ask what is the relevance of this to consideration to the START treaty," Cornyn chided. "I fear that the New START treaty will serve as another data in a narrative of weakness, pursuing diplomacy for its own sake or indulging in a utopian dream of a world without nuclear weapons divorced from hard reality."

Cornyn closed by urging defeat of the START agreement to prove that the era of "unilateral American concessions is over."

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) defended the president and criticized some Republicans who compared his diplomacy to an apology tour. "We ought to rise above such partisanship when issues of national security are at stake," he said.

But the debate ended in a burst of agreement after both sides accepted a bipartisan amendment designed to meet some GOP objections on the missile-defense issue.

"More than any other, this issue should transcend politics," said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and his party's manager of the debate. "More than any other, this issue should summon our best instincts and our highest sense of responsibility. More than almost any other time, the people of the world are watching us."

Among Republicans announcing their support for the overall treaty were Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, George V. Voinovich of Ohio, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Bob Bennett of Utah. All voted for cloture.

Earlier, the Senate approved $725.7 billion for military programs. The passage was by unanimous consent after the bill had been stripped of its more controversial parts, such as repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law. The repeal was passed in a standalone bill and signed on Wednesday by President Obama.

The authorization includes $159.3 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House on Wednesday accepted the Senate version and sent the legislation to Obama for his signature.

Oliphant reported from Washington and Muskal from Los Angeles

james.oliphant@latimes.com

michael.muskal@latimes.com

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