US Senate ratifies nuclear treaty with Russia
The US Senate on Wednesday ratified a landmark nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, handing President Barack Obama a signal diplomatic and political victory after a months-long battle.
Lawmakers voted 71-26 in favor of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), easily clearing the two-thirds majority needed to approve the pact, which Obama had made a lynchpin of efforts to "reset" relations with Moscow.
He also signed a historic law to enable gays to serve openly in the US military for the first time in history, another unlikely triumph in the waning days of his Democratic allies' control over the polarized Congress.
A Republican romp in November 2 elections means the White House's foes, who battled tooth and nail to stall both presidential priorities, will control the House of Representatives and have a more robust Senate minority come January.
Overturning the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" compromise that allowed gays to serve if they kept their sexuality secret, was a cherished goal of liberals but conservatives fought a tough campaign to keep it in place.
"We are not a nation that says 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' We are a nation that says, 'Out of many, we are one,'" Obama said in a euphoric ceremony at the Interior Department in Washington.
"We are a nation that welcomes the service of every patriot," he said, as euphoric activists celebrated the onset of the most sweeping social change in the US military in decades after a years-long campaign.
Obama also savored Senate approval of the START treaty, which restricts the former Cold War foes to a maximum of 1,550 deployed warheads each, a cut of about 30 percent from a limit set in 2002, and 800 launchers and bombers.
The treaty, which must still be ratified by Russia's parliament, would resume mutual on-the-ground inspections of nuclear facilities, which lapsed when the accord's predecessor expired in December 2009.
After a relentless courtship by Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and top US military commanders, 13 Republicans backed the treaty, bucking leaders eager to hand the president a major defeat, and no Democrats broke ranks.
"I am confident that our nation's security, and that of the world, will be enhanced by ratifying this treaty," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, the accord's chief Democratic patron in Congress.
Kerry -- who, with the panel's top Republican, senator Richard Lugar, steered the accord through a difficult and at times bitter debate -- echoed White House arguments that the pact will help efforts to confront Iran and North Korea.
The accord "is not simply an agreement to address the lingering dangers of the old nuclear age. It is an agreement that will give us a crucial tool to combat the threats of this new nuclear age," he said moments before the vote.
Prior to approving the treaty, lawmakers attached non-binding amendments to the resolution of ratification technical document to recommit Washington to deploying a missile defense system, modernizing its nuclear arsenal, and seek new talks with Russia on curbing tactical nuclear weapons.
Biden presided over the session -- a vice presidential prerogative -- and US Secretary of State Clinton milled about with senators ahead of the vote.
Obama planned a pre-Christmas press conference to sum up the frenetic two first years of his presidency before heading off on his Christmas holiday in his native Hawaii, to join the rest of his family.
Gay and lesbian rights activists have compared the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the racial integration of the military in 1948.
"No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie, or look over their shoulder in order to serve the country that they love," Obama said.
Opponents said the repeal will badly harm unit cohesion at a time when US forces are embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ultimately denigrate US security.
The change in policy, will not be enacted overnight, however.
Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, must certify that lifting the ban on gays serving openly can be done without harming readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruitment.
Once the certification is made, the change will enter into force within 60 days.
Three retiring US Senators, Republicans Kit Bond, Sam Brownback, and Jim Bunning, did not vote on the treaty.
© 2010 AFP