Tue December 21, 2010

Obama Secures Votes To Pass Nuclear Arms Treaty

President Barack Obama locked up enough Republican votes Tuesday to ratify a new arms control treaty with Russia that would cap nuclear warheads for both former Cold War foes and restart on-site weapons inspections.

Eleven Senate Republicans joined Democrats in a 67-28 proxy vote to wind up the debate and hold a final tally on Wednesday. They broke ranks with the Senate's top two Republicans and were poised to give Obama a victory on his top foreign policy priority.

"We are on the brink of writing the next chapter in the 40-year history of wrestling with the threat of nuclear weapons,'' Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Democrat, said after the vote.

Ratification requires two-thirds of those voting in the Senate and Democrats needed at least nine Republicans to overcome the opposition of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Jon Kyl, the party's point man on the pact.

Republicans Endorsing The Accord

Momentum for the treaty accelerated earlier in the day Tuesday when Lamar Alexander, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, endorsed the accord.

The treaty will leave the United States "with enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker to kingdom come,'' Alexander said on the Senate floor, adding, "I'm convinced that Americans are safer and more secure with the New START treaty than without it.''

Another Republican, Georgia's Johnny Isakson, was a bit more coy in confirming Tuesday that he too supported ratification of the treaty.

"I see nothing to change my mind, since I voted for it in committee," he told NPR.

The tide of GOP defections grew this afternoon when retiring Ohio Republican George Voinovich declared he'd consulted with a wide range of experts on arms treaties and had decided to support ratification.

"I believe that many of these experts remain concerned, as do I, that a failure to ratify the treaty would be exploited by those factions in Russia who would like to revert back to our Cold War posture," he said.

Obama has insisted the treaty is a national security imperative that will improve cooperation with Russia, an argument loudly echoed by the nation's military and foreign policy leaders, former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and six Republican secretaries of state.

In a fresh appeal for ratification, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that the treaty would "strengthen our leadership role in stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and provide the necessary flexibility to structure our strategic nuclear forces to best meet national security interests.''

Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a rare visit to the Capitol to lobby lawmakers.

Continued Opposition

Conservative foes of the accord, among them possible Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty argue the treaty would restrict U.S. options on a missile defense system to protect America and its allies and lacks sufficient procedures to verify Russia's adherence.

"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 that goes into the car dealership and says, 'I'm not leaving here until I buy a car.'"

South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham sought to explain why he'd earlier endorsed taking up the treaty in the lame duck session and is now opposed to finishing it.

"I've since learned there's never been a treaty ratified in a lame duck session in the history of the country, now I know why," he said. "I wouldn't recommend we do this again."

Steady Progress

That opposition withered in the face of forceful statements from the military establishment, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen who said Monday that the treaty "enhances our ability to do that which we in the military have been charged to do: protect and defend the citizens of the United States.''

Obama, who postponed his holiday vacation, lobbied hard for the Senate to complete the treaty before January when Republicans increase their numbers by five and the accord's outlook would be bleak.

Weeks after Republicans routed Democrats at the polls seizing control of the House and strengthening their numbers in the Senate, Obama has prevailed in securing overwhelming bipartisan approval of a tax deal with Republicans and getting repeal of the 17-year-old ban on openly gay military members, a crucial issue with the party's liberal base.

The White House had made steady progress in its efforts to persuade Republican lawmakers despite McConnell and Kyl's opposition.

In announcing his support, Alexander said he was reassured by a letter from Obama, in which the president reiterated his commitment to modernizing the remaining nuclear arsenal with projected spending of $85 billion over 10 years. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.