President Barack Obama locked up enough Republican votes Tuesday to ratify a new arms control treaty with Russia that would cap nuclear warheads for both former Cold War foes and restart on-site weapons inspections. Eleven Senate Republicans joined Democrats in a 67-28 proxy vote to wind up the debate and hold a final tally on Wednesday. They broke ranks with the Senate’s top two Republicans and were poised to give Obama a win on his top foreign policy priority. Momentum for the treaty accelerated earlier in the day Tuesday when Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, endorsed the accord.
The treaty will leave the United States “with enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker to kingdom come,” Alexander said on the Senate floor, adding, “I’m convinced that Americans are safer and more secure with the New START treaty than without it.” Obama has insisted the treaty is a national security imperative that will improve cooperation with Russia, an argument loudly echoed by the nation’s military and foreign policy leaders, former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and six Republican secretaries of state. In a fresh appeal for ratification, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that the treaty would “strengthen our leadership role in stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and provide the necessary flexibility to structure our strategic nuclear forces to best meet national security interests.” Obama, who postponed his holiday vacation, lobbied hard for the Senate to complete the treaty before January when Republicans increase their numbers by five and the accord’s outlook would be bleak. Republicans and Democrats were discussing amendments to the accompanying resolution, not the treaty, that would deal with Republican problems with missile defense and build support for the agreement. The treaty specifically would limit each country’s strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200. It also would establish a system for monitoring and verification. U.S. weapons inspections ended a year ago with the expiration of a 1991 treaty.