WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Senate committee has approved a major nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, moving one of President Barack Obama's top foreign policy goals closer to reality.
The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, as it's known, was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 16 by a 14-to-4 vote. It now must be voted on by the full Senate in order to come into force.
The final vote included three crucial "yes" votes by three Republican committee members, which bodes well for the treaty's chances when it comes before the U.S. Senate. A two-thirds majority -- or 67 votes -- is needed, which means eight Republicans will need to vote 'yes' on final passage.
The Senate is unlikely to take up the treaty between now and early October, when Congress breaks until after November's midterm elections.
Committee chairman John Kerry (Democrat-Massachusetts) called U.S. ratification of the treaty "a national security imperative." In addition to reducing Russian nuclear stockpiles, he said, the treaty will "redouble international support for [U.S.] nonproliferation efforts to counter the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue nations like Iran and North Korea."
Seeking Broad Support
The new START treaty was signed last April by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama and replaces the old START treaty, which expired last December.
The agreement commits each side to reducing their deployed nuclear weapons by some 30 percent, from 2,200 to 1,550. It also establishes new verification protocols so each side can, in the words of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, "trust, but verify" that the other side is adhering to the rules.
Russia's Duma has not yet voted on the treaty.
While there was never any doubt that the treaty would be approved by the Senate Foreign Relations committee, its appearance on the agenda was delayed while the White House sought the support of Republican senators.
With congressional elections just two months away, lawmakers are feeling deeply political and bipartisan cooperation on any legislation has become all but impossible.
In addition, some Republicans have questioned whether the new treaty's language would prevent the United States from developing a robust missile defense program. Doubts have also been raised about the strength of the verification measures.
Under President Barack Obama, the United States is moving ahead with plans for a missile defense program aimed at protecting U.S. forces and allies against threats from Iran's ballistic-missile defense program. Plans call for the deployment of ships with missile interceptors, and land-based defense systems in Eastern Europe.
Just before today's vote, the treaty won the critical support of committee Republican Bob Corker (Tennessee) who announced September 15 that his fears on missile defense had been allayed and he was satisfied that U.S. inspectors would be able to verify whether Russia was keeping up its end of the bargain.
"I feel far more comfortable with us having the ability to have 'boots on the ground' in Russia than [what] exists today, without that [ability]," he said.
Questions On Missile Defense
But Corker's colleague, Jim DeMint (Republican-Tennessee) was firm in his opposition to the treaty and offered an amendment he said would lessen the risk to U.S. national security. "There's nothing in the START treaty that provides for the defense of the people of the United States," he said. "The START treaty is based on the assumption of mutually assured destruction."
Before the standing-room-only hearing room, DeMint said it would be "dishonest of my colleagues ... to say that this allows us to develop a robust missile defense system that would protect the people of the United States, because we know that's not true."
That brought a sharp rebuttal from Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. "Are you suggesting that if we vote against your amendment, that we in some way are not defending this country and don't believe that we should defend this country against our enemies?" she asked. "Because if that's what you're suggesting, senator, then I personally resent that."
DeMint replied that he didn't mean any offense, but did believe that a vote against his amendment would be "a vote against a missile defense system capable of defending the people of the United States."
Kerry settled the disagreement by agreeing to include language that reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to missile defense.
It was the second time the chairman had had to fend off an attempt to derail proceedings by a Republican committee member.
Accusations Of Russian Cheating
Just moments into the hearing, Senator James Risch (Republican-Idaho) announced that a day earlier, on September 15, members of the U.S. intelligence community had revealed new information in a classified congressional briefing that he said raised doubts about whether debate on START should even continue.
"I would be remiss if I didn't report to members of this committee that yesterday, the intelligence community brought to us some very serious information that directly affects what we're doing here," he said.
Kerry responded sharply by telling Risch he was wrong to bring up the subject of classified security information in a public hearing. "It is inappropriate for us to have any discussion in open session of any of the substance of what was brought to the attention of some people in the course of the last few days," he said.
He added that he was aware of the information and had raised the issue personally with Vice President Joe Biden.
Kerry then shut down the line of debate by saying that the U.S. intelligence community had concluded that the new information "in no way alters their judgment ... about the substance of the treaty."
He added, "We would not have proceeded today" if their judgment had been otherwise.
But after the committee had voted and adjourned, Risch gave a brief interview to a reporter from "Foreign Policy," which reported that the new intelligence information "concerned Russian cheating on [previous] arms control agreements."
Asked whether that issue was already known and had been addressed by the White House during the drafting of the new treaty, the lawmaker said, "You haven't seen the stuff that I've seen."
*An earlier version of this article failed to note that the characterization of the undisclosed intelligence information was from "Foreign Policy," and not Senator Risch.