US Senate set to ratify Russia nuclear treaty

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President Barack Obama stood Tuesday on the cusp of a signal diplomatic victory as the US Senate prepared to ratify a landmark nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Russia.

The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) had enough Republican votes to pass the US Senate, with nine of Obama's adversaries publicly pledged to support the accord after a bitter public debate, according to an AFP tally.

That left Obama, who has made the treaty a lynchpin of his efforts to "reset" relations with Russia, with enough support for ratification in a vote expected Wednesday after a procedural test ballot on Tuesday.

"The question is not if it passes, the question is when," Corker, a treaty supporter who played a key role in addressing his party's concerns about the pact, told reporters after several key Republicans swung to the "yes" column.

Lawmakers still planned to amend the treaty's resolution of ratification technical document to recommit the United States to deploying a robust missile defense and ensuring upkeep of its nuclear arsenal.

The treaty "leaves our country with enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker to kingdom come," number-three Republican senator Lamar Alexander said in a speech declaring his support for the accord.

Unanimous, unqualified backing from top US military officials and the nation's spy chief for the accord, as well as Obama's intense, personal lobbying effort powered what at times seemed liked a campaign doomed to fail.

"I will vote for the treaty because it allows for inspection of Russian warheads and because our military leaders say it does nothing to interfere with the development of a missile defense system," said Alexander.

Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the treaty in April, triggering a months-long Senate process of hearings and briefings stretched out by Republicans requests to postpone action until after November elections.

The agreement -- which had the support of virtually every present and past US foreign policy or national security heavyweight -- restricts each nation to a maximum of 1,550 deployed warheads, a cut of about 30 percent from a limit set in 2002, and 800 launchers and bombers.

The accord would also return US inspectors who have been unable to monitor Russia's arsenal since the treaty's predecessor lapsed in December 2009.

"Because of all those reasons, we think the Senate will pass and ratify the START treaty in the next day or so," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

The White House on Tuesday released letters from Obama to Alexander and Republican Senator Thad Cochran to assure them he was committed to a 10-year, 80-billion-dollar campaign for upkeep of the US nuclear arsenal.

"That is my commitment to Congress -- that my administration will pursue these programs and capabilities for as long as I am president."

Obama also told the two Republicans that he had worked closely with Russia in the last few days on its concerns about nuclear North Korea's latest belligerence.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and number-two Republican Senator Jon Kyl, his party's point man on the treaty, worked to delay or defeat the accord with a battery of technical complaints and gripes about the process.

McConnell said shortly after November 2 elections in which Republicans routed Democrats that Obama's opponents number-one focus had to be to defeat the Democratic president in his 2012 reelection bid.

Echoing one of the chief arguments, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch told reporters Tuesday it was "morally wrong to jam this through during the lame duck" and urged a vote be put off until a new Congress musters in January.

Ratification required two-thirds of senators present to back the treaty, 67 if all 100 are there, and 66 if, as expected, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden will miss the ballot in the wake of prostate cancer surgery.

Democrats controlled 58 votes, and therefore needed nine Republicans to break ranks with their leaders in the year-end "lame duck" legislation session.

As of Tuesday, Republican Senators Richard Lugar, Susan Collins, Olympia Snow, Alexander, George Voinovich, Scott Brown, Bob Corker, Bob Bennett, and Johnny Isakson had publicly said they would vote for START.

A handful of others -- Republican Senators John McCain, Thad Cochran, Mark Kirk, Judd Gregg, and Lisa Murkowski -- were thought to be leaning towards backing the accord.

© 2010 AFP

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