US Senate ratifies nuclear arms pact with Russia

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

WASHINGTON - The US Senate approved the new nuclear arms reduction accord with Russia Wednesday, meeting President Barack Obama’s goal of ratifying the pact that requires both countries to cut their arsenals of deployed warheads.

The Senate voted 71-26 to ratify the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, clearing the two-thirds majority required under the US Constitution for treaty ratification.

New START was signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April and binds the two sides to cut their numbers of active warheads to 1,550 within seven years, or by about 30 percent from the 1991 treaty that expired in December 2009. Both sides must reduce delivery systems that include long range missiles, submarine launches missiles and bomber fleets to 700.

Obama still must sign the Senate resolution ratifying the treaty. New START is expected to easily get the green light of the Russian Duma in a vote that could come by the end of the week. Russian lawmakers had said they would wait to vote until a final outcome in the US Senate.

Once in effect New START will allow both countries to resume crucial inspections of the other’s nuclear fleet and activities. US and Russian officials spent a year negotiating the pact.

The approval of New START is a boost to Obama, who viewed the treaty as the cornerstone to “reset” relations with Moscow and of his nuclear non-proliferation agenda. The treaty was also seen as pivotal for maintaining Russian assistance in Afghanistan and for reining in Iran’s nuclear activities.

Prospects for US passage improved in recent weeks when several Republican moderates pledged to back the accord. Conservative Republicans had threatened to derail the treaty, accusing the White House and Democrats of rushing it through without giving lawmakers enough time to study its complexities.

They wanted it delayed until next year, but the White House countered the text has been available since shortly after Obama and Medvedev signed it in Prague.

Senator John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee who ushered the treaty through the Senate, said ratification makes the world safer from the threat of nuclear proliferation.

“This historic Senate vote makes our country safer and moves the world further away from the danger of nuclear disaster,” Kerry said in a statement.

Obama was expected to comment on the vote later Wednesday.

The Republicans had expressed concerns the treaty could limit the development of missile defence, a notion rejected by Obama and Democratic senators, and also wanted the treaty to address Russia’s advantage in numbers of battlefield - or tactical - nuclear arms.

But the Democrats easily defeated Republican amendments to the treaty over the weekend and on Monday. The amendments would have changed the text of the treaty, effectively killing it and sending it back into negotiations with Moscow.

With Republican opposition threatening to derail passage this year, Obama reached out to senior officials from past Republican administrations for support. Former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, Jim Baker and Colin Powell all publicly endorsed New START, as did former president George HW Bush.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin also weighed in on the discussion in the weeks leading up to the vote, warning that Moscow would have no choice but to build up its nuclear stockpiles if the Senate did not ratify New START. “We’ll have to react somehow,” he said.

Democrats control 58 Senate seats compared to 42 Republicans, but that majority will shrink to 53 with January’s swearing in of the next Congress. That would have made New START’s approval more challenging for Obama, and added to the sense of urgency to complete ratification before Congress breaks for holiday recess.

will not be displayed