WASHINGTON — A landmark treaty on nuclear arms that will bind the United States and Russia is set for ratification Wednesday after an arduous Senate battle, handing President Barack Obama a major diplomatic triumph.
“We are on the brink of writing the next chapter in the 40-year history of wrestling with the threat of nuclear weapons,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair John Kerry after lawmakers Tuesday moved 67-28 to end debate on the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), paving a way to a final vote.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden paid a rare visit to the US Capitol in an early victory lap after seven days of often bitter debate and weeks of behind-the-scenes courtship of swing-vote senators.
Eleven Republicans broke with party leaders eager to hand Obama a crushing defeat, enough to rally the two-thirds majority needed to ratify the pact, or 67 if all 100 senators are present.
“The question is not if it passes, the question is when,” said Republican Senator Bob Corker, a treaty supporter who played a key role in addressing his party’s concerns.
Obama has made the accord a lynchpin of his efforts to “reset” relations with Russia, looking to lock in Moscow’s cooperation to confront Iran over its suspect nuclear program and back the US-led war in Afghanistan.
Top Republicans, eager to build on a November 2 elections romp in which they captured the House and sliced deep into the Democrats’ Senate majority, had sought to defeat the treaty with delays and “treaty-killer” amendments.
The agreement — which had the support of virtually every living US foreign policy or national security heavyweight — restricts each nation to a maximum of 1,550 deployed warheads, a cut of about 30 percent from a limit set in 2002, and 800 launchers and bombers.
The accord would also return US inspectors who have been unable to monitor Russia’s arsenal since the treaty’s predecessor lapsed in December 2009.
The treaty “leaves our country with enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker to kingdom come,” number-three Republican senator Lamar Alexander said as he declared his support for the accord.
Unanimous, unqualified backing for the accord from top US military officials and the nation’s spy chief, as well as Obama’s intense, personal lobbying effort powered what at times seemed liked a campaign doomed to fail.
Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the treaty in April, triggering a months-long Senate process of hearings and briefings stretched out by Republicans requests to postpone action until after November elections.
Biden and Clinton wooed lawmakers in person and by telephone, as senior Pentagon officials worked to assure concerned Republicans that the pact would not hamper US missile defense plans that have angered Moscow.
With the White House’s blessing, lawmakers planned to attach symbolic amendments to the resolution of ratification, recommitting the United States to deploying a robust missile shield and ensuring upkeep of its nuclear arsenal.
Unlike amendments to the treaty itself, these would not alter the treaty, and therefore would not effectively kill the accord by forcing a renegotiation.
And the White House on Tuesday released letters from Obama to Alexander and Republican senator Thad Cochran to assure them he was committed to a 10-year, 80-billion-dollar campaign for upkeep of the US nuclear arsenal.
“That is my commitment to Congress — that my administration will pursue these programs and capabilities for as long as I am president.”
Obama also told the two Republicans that he had worked closely with Russia in the last few days on its concerns about nuclear North Korea’s latest belligerence.
The Russian lower house of parliament, the State Duma, has indicated it will ratify the treaty only after the US Senate acts, and said it may follow suit before the end of the year if it is passed in Washington.
A Duma source told the Interfax agency that “if START successfully passes its US Congressional hearing, there are no obstacles to it being submitted for discussion on December 24 — the last day of the autumn session.”