The Senate’s 67-to-28 vote Tuesday to close debate and move to a final vote on the new START nuclear-arms reduction accord with Russia means that President Obama is all but certain to get the foreign-policy Christmas present he wanted.
A final vote to ratify the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that Mr. Obama signed with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April is expected as early as Wednesday. If, as expected, “New START” is ratified, it will be the first time that an arms-control treaty negotiated by a Democratic president has garnered the required two-thirds vote of the Senate.
“What this [vote] represents is a victory for a broad national-security consensus,” says Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a Washington foundation focused on nuclear-weapons policy. He predicts a final vote for ratification of about 70 senators.
Ratification, Mr. Cirincione says, would signify that the opinion of the top military leadership and a broad spectrum of former national-security leaders carried the day over partisanship.
The Senate’s two top Republicans had announced their opposition to ratification in the current lame-duck session, and other Republicans continue to voice concerns that the treaty limits the United States in moving forward on missile-defense systems.
Still, the 67 votes in favor of Tuesday’s motion to close debate suggest that the treaty will be approved.
Ratification would constitute a big political victory for a president who just a month ago seemed down for the count before an opposition buoyed by the midterm elections. Obama was being compared to President Carter – who, Cirincione points out, was forced to pull the SALT II arms-reduction treaty negotiated by his administration.
But perhaps more important than a political victory, ratification of New START would represent solidification of a bipartisan national-security consensus concerning the US nuclear arsenal that is based on three principles, Cirincione says:
• Continuing to move toward the reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.
• Accomplishing that reduction with a careful and step-by-step process.
• Accompanying that process by a modernization program that keeps the existing nuclear arsenal “safe, secure, and effective.”
During debate on New START, the Obama administration committed to increasing funding for modernization of the nuclear arsenal and weapons labs as a way of winning over reluctant Republican senators.
But now that the treaty appears on the road to ratification, critics on Obama’s left are publicly wondering if a president who favors “zero nukes” gave too much to secure a modest reduction in US and Russian nuclear warheads.
“The Obama administration will pay a heavy price to ratify the modest START treaty,” says Alice Slater, a New York member of the coordinating committee of Abolition 2000, a disarmament coalition. Noting that Obama is promising $80 billion to update weapons labs and even more for new delivery systems, she says Obama is “assuring Senate hawks that missile development in the US will proceed full-speed ahead.”
According to Cirincione, ratification would signify that neither extreme in the nuclear-weapons debate prevailed. Noting that the likes of President George H.W. Bush support START’s ratification, he says, “At the end of the day, a quarter of the Republican caucus will buck its leadership to vote for this treaty. Especially in this hyper-partisan environment,” he adds, “that’s a lot.”