Democrats to hold Tuesday vote on START nuclear pact
The US Senate was expected to hold a test vote Tuesday on a nuclear arms control pact with Russia, confident of eventual success on one of President Barack Obama's top priorities despite Republican opposition.
Leading Democrats said they believed they had enough votes to ratify the treaty, which would restrict Russia and the United States to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads, a cut of about 30 percent from a previous limit set in 2002.
"After months of consideration and five days of open and robust debate, it is time to move forward on a treaty that will help reverse nuclear proliferation and make it harder for terrorists to get their hands on a nuclear weapon," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
"Every day we delay is another day we do not have inspectors on the ground in Russia monitoring their nuclear arsenal," he said after filing a "cloture" motion Sunday to end of debate on the controversial accord.
Earlier Sunday, he said he hoped for "strong bipartisan support to pass this treaty" adding that it is "too critical to our national security to delay."
Democrats expressed astonishment that top Republicans continued to oppose ratification when virtually every present and past foreign policy or national security heavyweight backed the move, regardless of their political stripes.
In addition to the cuts, the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) would also return American inspectors who have been unable to monitor Russia's arsenal since the treaty's predecessor lapsed in December 2009.
Obama won a critical victory when lawmakers voted 66-32 Wednesday to begin debate on the pact, showing Democrats within striking distance of the 67 votes needed to ratify START if all 100 Senators are present.
Senators rejected on Saturday an amendment by Republican Senator John McCain to strip out language in the preamble tying offensive nuclear weapons to defensive systems. A second Republican amendment was rejected on Sunday.
The preamble is non-binding but, because it resulted from talks between Washington and Moscow, passing either amendment would have forced the accord back to the negotiating table, effectively killing the agreement.
Just before Saturday's vote, the White House released a letter from Obama to top lawmakers reaffirming his plan to deploy US missile defense systems regardless of the treaty.
This was not enough to convince the top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, who unsurprisingly announced on Sunday that he would vote against ratification.
"I've decided that I cannot support the treaty. I think the verification provisions are inadequate and I do worry about the missile defense implications of it," he told CNN's "State of the Union."
McConnell was chided for that decision by senior Democrats, including Reid and John Kerry, the influential Democratic chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee.
"Respected Republican leaders including president George H.W. Bush, former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice have joined our united military leadership, including Secretary of Defense (Robert) Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral (Mike) Mullen, to call for ratification of this agreement," Reid said in a statement.
Democrats, including Kerry and majority whip Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democratic senator, appeared confident they had enough Republican support to ratify the treaty even without McConnell's support.
"I think we do," Durbin told "Fox News Sunday." "We had 66 votes for those who wanted to move to this debate, and I think that we have had a debate now. I think we need to bring this to a vote."
Republican Senator Mike Johanns of Nebraska however insisted that supporters "may well get 60 votes, but they're in trouble to get the 67 votes."
On the Senate floor, Kerry attacked McConnell's argument that Democrats were trying to rush the treaty through.
"The military supports this treaty. The leader of the Strategic Command, current and the past former seven, support this treaty. The national intelligence treaty supports this treaty."
Kerry also pointed out on ABC that even the general in charge of US missile defense was on record as saying in front of the foreign relations committee that the New START treaty would in no way restrain US defense capabilities.
© 2010 AFP