WATCH: The U.S. Senate ratifies the new START nuclear arms treaty. (Reuters video)
By Richard Solash
WASHINGTON -- World leaders have hailed the vote in the U.S. Senate ratifying a landmark nuclear arms-control treaty between the United States and Russia.
After months of heated debate and closed-door negotiation, the Senate on December 22 ratified the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia, giving President Barack Obama a major foreign-policy victory and U.S.-Russian relations a significant boost.
Senators voted 71 to 26 to approve the treaty, which commits the United States and Russia to reduce their stockpiles of deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 -- a reduction of nearly one-third -- within seven years. The treaty also sets new limits on ballistic-missile delivery systems and is accompanied by a verification regime.
A spokeswoman for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev noted that the U.S. amendments will need to be considered by Russian lawmakers before they vote in both houses to ratify. In a sign that a first vote in Moscow could come soon, Boris Gryzlov, speaker of the Russian State Duma, said the lower chamber could vote to ratify as early as December 24.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called the U.S. ratification a "significant contribution to Euro-Atlantic security," while United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it sends a "clear message" in support of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.
Japan, site of the world's first and only atomic bombings at the end of World War II, said the move marked "important progress" in disarmament efforts by Washington and Moscow.
Speaking at a press conference after the vote, Obama said he was pleased that the Senate had passed what he called "my top national security priority for this session of Congress."
"This is the most significant arms control agreement in nearly two decades and it will make us safer and reduce our nuclear arsenals, along with Russia. With this treaty, our inspectors will also be back on the ground at Russian nuclear bases. So we will be able to trust but verify," Obama said.
John Kerry (Democrat-Massachusetts), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the most vocal proponents of the treaty, told lawmakers in the moments before the vote that their decision would have global implications.
"Regardless of where we stand on the START treaty, this is one of those rare times in the United States Senate -- one of the only times in all of our service here -- when we have it in our power to safeguard or to endanger human life on this planet," he said.
Months Of Political Fighting
Obama and Medvedev signed the treaty, which replaces a 1991 agreement that expired in December 2009, on April 8 in Prague.
U.S. and Russian nuclear inspectors have not visited each other's facilities for more than a year -- a situation that officials in Washington say endangers national security.
Washington's deeply partisan political climate meant that challenges brought by opposition Republican lawmakers in the months since last spring's signing turned the ratification process into a bitter fight.
Republican senators, led by the party's second-most-senior member, Jon Kyl (Arizona), argued that because the treaty acknowledges an interrelationship between offensive and defensive systems, it constrains U.S. plans for a missile defense shield, which Russia views with skepticism.
Several Republicans also voiced concern that the treaty diverts attention away from what they said was a need to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the face of threats from Iran and North Korea.
U.S. Senator John McCain voted against the START treaty.
The Obama administration spent months courting Kyl before today's vote and even sent a team across the country to his Arizona office in an effort to persuade him to drop his opposition. The White House also announced $85 billion in additional funding over the next 10 years to modernize the country's nuclear complex.
The push for ratification included multiple newspaper editorials, speeches, and letters of support from not only Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden, and Secretary of State Clinton, but also from military leaders and former presidents, secretaries of state, and defense secretaries from both the Democratic and Republican parties.
A December 17 "New York Times" editorial urging the Senate to ratify was even signed by the foreign ministers of 25 European countries.
It was not enough to erase Republican concerns, however.
On December 20, Democrats defeated three Republican amendments that they said would have killed the treaty by requiring additional negotiation with Moscow.
That led Kyl to say to lawmakers the following day: "Is the United States just to be a rubber stamp? We can't do anything to change the treaty or the protocol or just the resolution of ratification, which is what we're trying to do here, because the Russians would say no and therefore we can't do it? I thought we're the United States Senate."
In the end, Kyl voted against the treaty.
Capping 'Reset' With Russia
Before the vote, Democrats agreed to accept versions of two Republican amendments -- one recognizing the U.S. commitment to pursue a missile defense system and the other reiterating the U.S. commitment to weapons modernization. Neither one affects the language of the treaty itself.
All told, 13 Republican senators broke with the party leadership to give the treaty the two-thirds majority required for passage. Richard Lugar (Republican-Indiana), a longtime advocate of nuclear nonproliferation, led the Republicans who voted for the treaty.
Obama characterized the treaty as the lynchpin to Washington's reset of relations with Moscow, which he has pursued since taking office last year.
The White House has reaped rewards from the reset, including Russian flyover rights for military planes headed to Afghanistan and Moscow's agreement in June to support a strong set of UN sanctions against Iran for its nuclear ambitions, as Obama noted.
"We'll continue to advance our relationship with Russia, which is essential to making progress on a host of challenges, from enforcing strong sanctions on Iran to preventing nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. And this treaty will enhance our leadership to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and seek the peace of a world without them," he said.
Matthew Rojansky, an expert on U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says ratifying New START had become a "litmus test" for the reset in both the United States and Russia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
"We're at a point where it has been made something of a litmus test for the success of the reset from both sides, and so I think, that being the case, perceptions create the reality. You would be very hard-pressed to continue the reset with the same momentum if ratification failed," he says.
The Senate vote was also welcomed in Moscow, where Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called it "a gold standard" for arms control pacts, according to Interfax.
U.S. and Russian officials had pledged at the treaty's signing to try to synchronize their respective ratification efforts.
with additional agency reporting
Moscow had voiced impatience in recent months over the U.S. delay in ratification, and on November 3, the Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee withdrew its recommendation to ratify the treaty.