The New START treaty still faces hurdles in gaining ratification by the full Senate, but the 14-4 vote Thursday in favor of the treaty in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee demonstrated that cooperation from Republicans on a top Obama priority was possible despite the charged political atmosphere ahead of November's congressional elections.
It remained unclear whether the full Senate will consider the treaty this year, but Thursday's vote was a positive sign for the president.
Progress on the treaty has been slow since Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed it in April. It would reduce the limit on strategic warheads to 1,550 for each country from the current ceiling of 2,200. It also would set new procedures that allow both countries to inspect each other's arsenals to verify compliance.
In a statement after the vote, Obama urged the Senate to move quickly to ratification.
"I encourage members on both sides of the aisle to give this agreement the fair hearing and bipartisan support that it deserves and that has been given to past agreements of its kind," he said.
Democrats had delayed a Senate committee vote on the treaty as they sought broader support from Republicans. They will need at least eight Republican votes on the Senate floor to have the two-thirds majority needed for ratification.
Some Republicans say the pact does not set adequate procedures to ensure that Russia honors its provisions. They also have expressed fear that Moscow could use the treaty to limit U.S. missile defense plans.
The senior Republican on the committee, Richard Lugar, has been a champion of the treaty and of strong arms control agreements for years. But until this week, it was unclear whether he would be the sole Republican on the panel to vote in favor. In the end, he was joined by Bob Corker and Johnny Isacson.
Some Republicans remained unconvinced, however, and Tuesday's debate became heated at times. Sen. Jim DeMint, a leading opponent, cited the missile defense concerns and said the treaty would undermine U.S. security.
"If we are going to move ahead with the commitment not to protect the people of the United States, I think everyone in this country ought to know it," DeMint said.
That provoked the ire of the committee chairman, Sen. John Kerry, and other Democrats, who said that all the lawmakers were committed to protecting the American people.
Kerry and DeMint later compromised on an amendment that would describe the U.S. commitment to missile defense.
Democrats say the treaty could be considered by the full Senate before the November elections. Given the intense partisan atmosphere in Washington in the run-up to the vote, however, Democratic prospects probably would be better in a "lame-duck" session that would sit after the elections but before the new Congress is seated in January. Passage could be more difficult under a new Congress because Republicans are expected to pick up seats in the election.
After the vote, Kerry discounted the possibility that the vote on ratification will come before the election and said there is a much better chance during the lame duck session.
A failure to ratify the treaty or a long delay would represent a significant setback for Obama's strategy of using nuclear talks to improve cooperation with Russia.