The U.S. Senate ratified a nuclear arms reduction pact with Russia on Wednesday by a strong bipartisan vote of 71 to 26. The New START treaty was one of the last measures approved during a busy post-election, end-of-year session.
Vice President Joe Biden presided over the Senate's ratification vote and announced the result.
"Two-thirds of the Senate present, having voted in the affirmative, the resolution of ratification is agreed to," said Biden.
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At the White House, President Barack Obama hailed Senate action on what he called his "top national security priority."
"This is the most significant arms control agreement in nearly two decades," said Obama. "And it will make us safer and reduce our nuclear arsenals, along with Russia."
The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty would limit U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear warheads and delivery systems, and reestablish a verification regime after a yearlong absence. It is a successor to START I, which was signed in the early 1990s and expired last year.
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts, spoke passionately of the stakes in containing the global nuclear threat, and the need to act on the treaty before the Senate adjourned for the holidays.
"The question is not whether we get out of here for a holiday," said Kerry. "The question is whether we move the world a little more out of the dark shadow of nuclear nightmare."
Under the New START treaty, U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals would be reduced by as much as a third.
Republicans cast the only votes against the accord, including Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who questioned Russia's intentions.
"Russia has been inconsistent at best in helping the United States with the danger of a nuclear Iran and North Korea - the gravest threats to peace in the world," said Sessions. "Why has Russia not been more cooperative? They blocked a resolution condemning North Korea Sunday at the U.N. Russia attacked Georgia, a sovereign nation. Russia continues to work to undermine the pro-Western democracy movement in Ukraine. They continue a host of actions that evidence a long-term plan to effect a real or de facto reabsorption of these free nations back into what was the old Soviet Union."
Other Republicans warned that the treaty has inadequate verification provisions, and would impede America's ability to provide a nuclear shield for its allies and constrain U.S. plans to deploy a robust missile defense system. Treaty proponents disputed the claims and defeated a series of amendments put forth by Republicans, many of which would have substantially altered the treaty and required Russian approval for the pact to go into effect.
As to whether the United States can trust Russia, treaty backers said it is the need for nuclear verification that makes the New START accord essential.
Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota said the treaty will enhance U.S. security and is not the surrender he said Republicans portrayed.
"This president [i.e., Barack Obama] has not proposed anything that would injure our national security. He is not proposing anything that is unilateral. He has negotiated and his team has negotiated a very strong arms reduction treaty with the Russians."
President Barack Obama has said that, ultimately, he would like to see a world free of nuclear weapons. Republican opponents of the New START treaty called that wish utopian, naïve and dangerous. Several Democrats responded that, in an age of terrorism, a nuclear weapon falling into the wrong hands would be catastrophic.