The Senate on Wednesday overcame heavy opposition from the chamber’s Republican leaders and voted 71-26 to approve the New START arms-reduction pact with Russia, handing the White House an 11th-hour political and foreign-policy victory on one of President Obama’s top priorities for the year.
Approval of the historic arms control agreement capped a surprising run of legislative wins for the president in the waning days of the lame duck of the 111th Congress.
The vote, a high-profile achievement for Obama in the final hours of this marathon lame-duck session, came after an intensified lobbying push by Obama and top administration officials to win enough Republicans to ensure the necessary two-thirds majority for treaty ratification.
In the days leading up to the vote, Obama phoned fence-sitting Republicans and deployed his biggest foreign-policy guns—Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton—to Capitol Hill to press the case for ratification before the end of the year.
While the White House was at work, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., was warning Republicans that the treaty needed change before the Senate should accept it.
Just minutes before the vote, Kyl delivered closing remarks highlighting his concerns about the treaty and its consideration on the floor at the end of the lame-duck. He criticized Democrats for "parachuting in" with various pieces of legislation while the Senate debated the treaty. "This had not been easy," he said.
But after months of wrangling when the treaty often appeared to be on life support, the president’s outreach strategy ultimately prevailed. Despite warnings from many GOP leaders that they would not approve New START during the lame-duck unless the Senate approved a host of amendments, the list of Republicans who opted instead to support the pact grew steadily throughout this week.
In the end, 13 Republicans joined the entire Democratic caucus in supporting the treaty. GOP backers included Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Robert Bennett of Utah, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Susan Collins of Maine, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Richard Lugar of Indiana, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Olympia Snowe of Maine, and George Voinovich of Ohio.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., who on Tuesday stressed the difficulty of getting two-thirds of the Senate to agree on anything, today quipped that "71 is the new 98."
Democrats—led by Kerry, who has shepherded the treaty through the Senate this year—successfully fended off efforts to rewrite the treaty language. Any changes to the pact itself would have required the United States and Russia to renegotiate the accord, effectively putting it on ice indefinitely.
In his own closing remarks, Kerry said the vote on the treaty is a question of "whether to move the world a little more out of the dark shadow of nuclear nightmare."
But to assuage some Republican concerns, Senate Democrats did agree to a few changes to the resolution of ratification, which does not affect the accord itself and would not require negotiators to restart talks.
Most notable of the amendments to the resolution was one offered by Armed Services Committee ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and other senators that addressed long-held Republican concerns that language in the treaty's preamble would hamstring U.S. missile-defense efforts. Specifically, the McCain-Lieberman amendment requires the president to certify to Congress his commitment to a wide range of missile defenses and to communicate to Russia that the preamble is not binding.
“We want to be honest with [the Russians] and direct with them and not enter into this important treaty with any illusions,” Lieberman said.
After working with McCain on the language, Kerry ultimately backed the amendment, but he stressed that it “reinforces what the president has already done and said.” Indeed, Obama sent a letter to the Senate over the weekend promising to “continue to develop and deploy effective missile defenses to protect the United States, our deployed forces, and our allies and partners.”
Other amendments to the resolution agreed to by the Senate include one from Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla., that requires the president to pledge he will negotiate with Russia on ways to secure and reduce the number of tactical nuclear weapons. Republicans, who have argued that Russia has far more tactical nuclear weapons than the United States, were concerned that the treaty focuses solely on longer-range strategic warheads.
The Senate also agreed to an amendment offered on Tuesday night from Kyl, a key Republican negotiator on the treaty who ultimately opposed it. Kyl’s amendment directs the president to modernize the triad of strategic nuclear delivery vehicles, which include heavy bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Kerry said he does not know when Russia will take up the treaty.