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Key Votes Loom for US-Russia Nuclear Treaty

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., center, speaks as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., left, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., listen after a closed Senate session in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Dec. 20, 2010.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., center, speaks as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., left, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., listen after a closed Senate session in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Dec. 20, 2010.
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Michael Bowman

By a margin of nearly two-to-one, the U.S. Senate on Monday rejected more Republican-sponsored amendments to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START accord, with Russia.  Treaty proponents hope for a final vote later this week, despite objections from a bloc of Republicans who are strongly opposed to ratification in the waning days of an end-of-year congressional session.  

The Senate voted down three amendments put forth by Republican critics of the New START treaty.  One amendment would have boosted the number of inspections performed at nuclear facilities.  Another would have raised the number of nuclear launchers permitted by the accord.

As written, the pact would limit the United States and Russia to roughly 1,500 deployed long-range nuclear warheads, and 700 delivery systems such as intercontinental ballistic missiles and heavy bombers.  A third amendment would have committed the United States and Russia to future negotiations on tactical nuclear weapons, which are not covered by the New START treaty.

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010.
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010.

A frustrated minority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, criticized Democratic resistance to modifying the accord. "If it is the position of the majority that the treaty cannot be amended, why have any debate at all?"

Treaty proponents say the goal of the Republican amendments is not to improve the treaty, but to kill it because any changes would send it back to Moscow for approval.  Russia's foreign minister has warned against rewriting the accord.

The treaty is one of numerous measures the Senate has taken up since the November midterm elections that boosted Republican numbers in both houses of Congress.

McConnell criticized what he says are Democratic efforts to ram divisive bills through the legislature before the new Congress arrives next month. He said the New START treaty deserves careful consideration and should be postponed.

"A decision of this magnitude should not be decided under the pressure of a deadline.  The American people do not want us to squeeze our most important work into the final days of a [legislative] session," said McConnell.

"Is there no shame, ever, with respect to the arguments made on the floor of the United States Senate?," asked Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "This treaty is not being rushed.  This treaty was delayed at the request of Republicans.  Today marks our sixth day of debate on the New START treaty.  That's a fact."

At the White House, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the treaty has had ample vetting and that President Barack Obama is lobbying senators to support the pact. "The White House believes that before Congress leaves town, the Senate will ratify the New START treaty," he said.

Senators met in closed session for private discussions on the treaty. Afterward, Senator Kerry said senators were read a letter from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, describing the New START accord as critical for national security.

The treaty faces two important tests in the coming days.  A procedural vote that is expected on Tuesday will require at least a three-fifths majority to advance the treaty to a final vote, which could come as early as Wednesday.  The treaty then would need at least two-thirds backing for ratification.  Sixty-six of 100 senators voted in favor of opening debate on the accord last week.

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