Senate ratifies nuke pact, delivering win to Obama — still needs Russia's OK

Published: Thursday, Dec. 23 2010 1:27 a.m. MST

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday ratified an arms control treaty with Russia that reins in the nuclear weapons that could plunge the world into doomsday, giving President Barack Obama a major foreign policy win in Congress' waning hours.

Thirteen Republicans broke with their top two leaders and joined 56 Democrats and two independents in providing the necessary two-thirds vote to approve the treaty. The vote was 71-26, with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., showing up just two days after cancer surgery.

Obama praised the strong bipartisan vote for a treaty he described as the most significant arms control pact in nearly two decades.

"This treaty will enhance our leadership to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and seek the peace of a world without them," he told reporters at a White House news conference.

The accord, which still must be approved by Russia, would restart onsite weapons inspections as successors to President Ronald Reagan have embraced his edict of "trust, but verify." Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow welcomed the vote but still needed to study the accompanying Senate resolution.

Vice President Joe Biden presided over the Senate and announced the vote. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton observed the vote from the Senate floor. Both former senators had lobbied furiously for the treaty's approval.

"The question is whether we move the world a little out of the dark shadow of nuclear nightmare," Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., said to his colleagues moments before the historic tally.

Calling the treaty a national security imperative, Obama had pressed for its approval before a new, more Republican Congress assumes power in January. In recent days, he had telephoned a handful of wavering Republicans, eventually locking in their votes.

The Obama administration has argued that the United States must show credibility in its improved relations with its former Cold War foe, and the treaty was critical to any rapprochement. The White House is counting on Russia to help pressure Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

"A responsible partnership between the world's two largest nuclear powers that limits our nuclear arsenals while maintaining strategic stability is imperative to promoting global security," Clinton said in a statement applauding the vote.

World leaders hailed the Senate vote, with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calling it "a firm and clear message in support of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation."

The New START treaty, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, 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.

"START" stands for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Obama overcame the opposition of the Senate's top two Republicans — Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Jon Kyl of Arizona, the GOP point man on the treaty. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the leading Republican on the Armed Services Committee and Obama's 2008 White House foe, also opposed the treaty.

Peeved by the Democrats' interruption of the eight days of treaty debate for other legislation, McConnell accused the White House earlier this week of politicizing the process.

McConnell said national security was the main concern, "not some politician's desire to declare a political victory and hold a press conference before the first of the year."

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