The Senate voted 71 to 26 Wednesday to ratify the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, a nuclear disarmament agreement with Russia signed by President Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev in April. Thirteen Republicans joined 58 Democrats to help the measure easily pass the two-thirds majority needed for ratification.
The vote was a blow to Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, who had tried mightily to persuade his colleagues to defeat the treaty, as well as a victory for President Obama, who named the START Treaty as his top foreign policy priority for the lame-duck session of Congress and spent hours working through Republicans' objections to win their support for the pact.
The Republicans voting yes were Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Robert Bennett (Utah), Scott Brown (Mass.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Susan Collins (Maine), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Judd Gregg (N.H.) Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Mike Johanns (Neb.), Richard Lugar (Ind.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska.), Olympia Snowe (Maine.), and George Voinovich (Ohio).
Vice President Joe Biden, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired the Senate for the vote in his role as the president of the chamber, while Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) surprised his colleagues by showing up for the vote two days after surgery for prostate cancer.
The treaty, known as "New START," requires Russia and the United States to reduce their nuclear warheads by half, cut the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles and missile launchers, and submit to on-site inspections by the other country's weapons experts. A controversial preamble also states that current missile defense systems would not undermine the treaty, a clause that Republicans contend was written by the Russians to lay the groundwork to object to future American missile defense systems.
The Wednesday vote came after Democrats accepted two amendments -- one from Kyl and one from Sen. John McCain -- stating the Obama administration's commitment to modernizing nuclear weapons facilities and to pursuing a robust missile defense program in the future.
Despite the accommodations he won from the White House, Kyl has led the charge against the treaty since it was signed by the president in April, and he went to the Senate floor just before the vote to give his final argument against it.
"There isn't time to lay out all of the problems that I think that those of us who oppose the treaty still believe are present in the treaty," Kyl said. "The precedent here that we're establishing is that the Senate really is a rubber stamp. Whatever the president negotiates with the Russians or somebody else, we dare not change because it will have to be renegotiated to some great detriment to humanity."
As Kyl complained that the treaty had been jammed through the Senate and that it would put the United States at a strategic disadvantage, several of his GOP colleagues defended both the process in the Senate and the agreement itself.
"This has been a seven-month process, not a nine-day process," said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), a member of the Senate foreign Relations Committee that approved the treaty in September. "When it's ratified today it will be a step forward for my children and my grandchildren."
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) praised the White House's role in the process. "The administration officials have bent over backwards to try to solve every problem that's come up," Corker said. "The administration has not only solved problems for people who might vote for the treaty, they've tried to solve problems for people they know are not going to vote for the treaty."
The issue has become increasingly contentious, as Democrats have pushed Republicans to approve the treaty without significant changes, while many Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have accused the Obama administration of rushing the treaty toward passage without giving the Senate enough time to fully consider it.
During the final debate Wednesday, several Republicans accused the president personally of weakening the United States' role in the world with New START.
"This treaty is just another example, another symptom, of a foreign policy that sends a message of timidity, even ambivalence, not only about our own security, but about America's leadership role in a very dangerous world," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) agreed. "I think it makes us less secure, not more secure as a nation," Vitter said. "It's clear to me that President Obama went into negotiations willing to give up almost anything to get a treaty and that basic posture produced what it always will -- a bad deal of us."
Although Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) had intended to speak about the treaty, he stopped to chastise Vitter and Cornyn for their remarks about President Obama.
Nelson said he was raised to believe that when the commander in chief travels abroad, "there is no partisanship when that occurs, and it is troubling to this senator to hear comments about our president," Nelson said. "I would think we ought to rise above that partisanship when issues of national security are at stake."
Nelson went on to deliver his speech, saying the agreement will strengthen national security.
As senators gathered for the final vote, Sen. John Kerry, the treaty's champion in the Senate and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thanked the Republicans who joined the Democrats in supporting the pact that could not have ratified without bipartisan backing, and gave his closing argument for it.
"In the final analysis, regardless of where you stand on the START treaty, this is one of those rare times in the United States Senate . . . when we have it in our power to safeguard or to endanger human life on this planet," Kerry said.