The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved a landmark nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Russia, setting the stage for a vote by the full Senate. But, that might not happen until after November's congressional elections.
The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was signed by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in April and is one of Mr. Obama's foreign policy priorities. The treaty would limit both countries to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads - a 30-percent reduction from 2002 limits.
The Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat John Kerry, hailed the passage of the New START treaty in the committee as "the best of bipartisanship." But while all 11 of the committee's Democrats voted in favor of the treaty, only three of the committee's eight Republicans endorsed it. The final vote 14 to 4. Republican Senator Jim DeMint was absent for the vote.
During Thursday's hearing on the treaty, the South Carolina senator strongly criticized the accord, saying that it would undermine U.S. national security. DeMint tried to win support for an amendment that would permit the United States to develop a missile defense system.
"But I think it would be naïve and maybe even dishonest by colleagues at the table to say that this allows us to develop a robust missile defense system that would protect the people of the United States, because we know that is not true," said Jim DeMint.
Senator DeMint and other Republicans on the panel questioned the basic premise behind the arms treaty - that of deterrence through mutually assured destruction.
DeMint said this premise violates U.S. law.
"Mutually assured destruction is contrary to our constitutional obligation to protect the people of the United States," he said.
Senator Kerry said Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained the thinking behind the New START treaty.
"Under the last administration - that is eight years of the [George W.] Bush administration and this administration [under the Barack Obama administration] - it has been the United States' policy not to build a missile defense that would render useless Russia's nuclear capabilities," said John Kerry. "It has been a missile defense intended to protect against rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran, or countries that have very limited [nuclear] capabilities."
Senator DeMint insisted that the treaty would hurt U.S. national security unless his amendment passed, angering Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen.
"Are you suggesting that if we vote against your amendment that we, in some way, are not defending this country and do not believe that we should defend this country against our enemies, because if that is what you are suggesting, I personally resent that," said Jeanne Shaheen.
DeMint said he did not intend to offend anyone, but he did not back down on the issue of missile defense.
Kerry was able to work out a compromise with Republican senators to alter the language of the treaty and pass the DeMint amendment.
Republicans also want assurances about plans to modernize America's nuclear arsenal.
The heated discussions on the panel suggest that it will be difficult to garner the 67 votes required in the full Senate to ratify the treaty before the congressional midterm elections on November 2. Analysts add that Republicans do not want to be seen as handing President Obama a major foreign policy victory ahead of the elections.
Senator Kerry conceded after the hearing that he believed the treaty would win approval after the November 2 elections.