WASHINGTON -- More than a dozen Republican lawmakers today defied their party leadership to vote in favor of ratifying a U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control treaty, which the Senate approved at just before 3 p.m. local time in a 71-26 vote (GSN, Dec. 22).
The legislative action is sure to be recorded as a major foreign policy success for President Obama as he nears the end of a highly partisan and contentious year, and a signature achievement that his party will tout in the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections.
The chamber was able to reach unanimous consent to move to a ratification vote on the New START agreement after passing an amendment by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), shortly after noon today, aimed at heightening political pressure on Obama to follow through with his plans for U.S.- and Europe-based missile defenses. The administration has said it is firmly committed to missile defenses, and McCain's measure proceeded with solid Democratic support after the two sides hammered out details in wording.
Despite seeing his amendment passed, McCain went on to vote against the treaty. The senior Arizona senator was joined in his "no" vote by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), even though both lawmakers were among nine Republicans on December 15 in favor of commencing Senate debate on the accord.
It became clear yesterday that Democrats would have enough backing for ratification when senators voted 67-28 to cut off debate and move toward final approval of the pact. Even though cloture demanded just 60 votes, ratification of the arms treaty would require a two-thirds supermajority of those senators present, and the 67 "yes" votes signaled more than sufficient support for final passage.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the designated GOP point man on the New START agreement, Republican Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), on Sunday declared they would oppose ratification. They said there was insufficient time during the current lame-duck congressional session to fix problems they felt the pact contained.
That was not enough to stop a growing number of Senate Republicans from declaring their support for the treaty. The defections -- which included Senators Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Judd Gregg (N.H.) and Robert Bennett (Utah) -- were remarkable in a minority party known for its internal discipline on national security and other major policy issues. Alexander is the highest ranking Republican to vote for the treaty, holding his party's No. 3 leadership post.
Striking, too, was the fact that the New START vote came in the wake of Obama's self-described "shellacking" in last month's midterm elections, in which Republicans retook control of the House and bolstered their numbers in the Senate. Since then, the embattled president has achieved other notable legislative successes, as well, including a bipartisan tax package and a measure to lift the ban on gay service members.
In the weeks leading up to today's vote, it was still not certain whether Democrats would have enough Republican support for the treaty to clear the Senate. One congressional staff aide told Global Security Newswire last week that treaty advocates were "teetering on the edge" of having insufficient Republican endorsements for passage (see GSN, Dec. 16).
At least nine GOP votes were needed, in addition to support from all present Senate Democrats, for New START to proceed toward implementation. Once the Russian parliament also completes ratification, which is widely expected, the pact can enter into force (see related GSN story, today).
Under the replacement to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on April 8, each side will cap deployed nuclear warheads at 1,550 and strategic delivery vehicles at 700. An additional 100 bomber aircraft, ICBMs or submarine-launched missiles can be kept in reserve.
New START critics have voiced qualms about whether the accord might limit U.S. missile defenses and how well the agreement could be verified. The White House insisted, though, that the pact would not affect missile defenses at all and would allow verification procedures that had lapsed for more than a year to resume.
Measures to ensure that each side is properly implementing New START reductions are to include 18 annual on-site inspections, along with "exhibitions, data exchanges and notifications related to strategic offensive arms and facilities covered by the treaty, and provisions to facilitate the use of national technical means for treaty monitoring," according to a March White House statement, referring in the latter instance to spy satellites and other sensors.
The agreement also provides for the exchange of "telemetry," or data gathered during missile tests that can indicate weapon capabilities, the statement said.
The Senate this week accepted several GOP amendments to the ratification document, including measures mandating updates to the systems that carry nuclear warheads and urging new negotiations with Russia on curbing nonstrategic nuclear-weapon stocks.
Under the McCain amendment, the United States must deploy its planned Europe-based "phased adaptive approach" for missile defense "on schedule, if not earlier," along time lines laid out in the Defense Department's February Ballistic Missile Defense Review report. Washington must also continue apace with its development and deployment of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, with interceptors based in Alaska and California, according to the new measure.
If the president cannot adhere to anticipated deployment schedules, he must promptly notify the Senate of any delays and annually certify that his revised time lines remain valid.
The McCain amendment also declares that Russia's April 7 unilateral statement on missile defense -- saying that a U.S. expansion of missile defenses could prompt Moscow to build up offensive missiles or withdraw from New START -- "does not impose a legal obligation on the United States." It also prohibits the United States from providing to Russia records of technical data from U.S. missile interceptor tests as long as New START remains in force.
Kyl, who also voiced concern that the nation's remaining atomic arsenal must be properly maintained and modernized, negotiated with the White House for months on budget increases for the nuclear complex. Obama administration officials believed that if they could win over Kyl, he could deliver a strong bipartisan majority for the treaty sure to help bolster U.S. credibility in foreign policy, particularly on issues related to nuclear weapons and arms control.
The talks resulted in the Obama administration's commitment to request more than $85 billion over the next decade to build new nuclear research and production facilities and overhaul aging warheads.
The Defense Department also is developing plans to build new nuclear delivery platforms, including replacements for today's strategic bomber aircraft, Minuteman 3 ICBMs, Air-Launched Cruise Missiles and Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (see GSN, Dec. 21).
Despite the new funding commitments, Kyl withheld his support for the treaty, complaining that the Senate lacked the time before year's end to debate the pact and address lingering concerns. McConnell and Kyl made clear they would have preferred to hold off the ratification vote until the 112th Congress, to allow new members to vet the treaty.
As of January, the minority party will have strengthened its ranks in the chamber by a net six votes.