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US Senate Begins Debate on Nuclear Pact with Russia

The U.S. Senate has voted to open debate on ratifying a nuclear arms control treaty with Russia. Consideration of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, is being squeezed into the waning days of an end-of-year congressional session.

The pact would limit the United States and Russia to roughly 1,500 deployed long-range nuclear warheads each, and 700 delivery systems such as intercontinental ballistic missiles or heavy bombers. A successor to the original START treaty signed by President George H. W. Bush in the early 1990s, New START stipulates what negotiators call robust verification provisions.

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts, urged prompt action on the pact. "This is the time and this is the moment when the United States Senate needs to stand up and be counted on an issue of national security for our country," he said.

Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana reminded his colleagues of START's history. "For 15 years, the START treaty has helped us keep a lid on the U.S.-Russian nuclear rivalry. It established a working relationship on nuclear arms with a country that was our mortal enemy for four-and-a-half decades. Because START expired, we have had no American inspectors in Russia for more than a year," he said.

Lugar warned against Senate inaction. "Failure of the U.S. Senate to approve the treaty would result in an expansion of arms competition with Russia. A rejection of New START would be greeted with delight in Iran, North Korea, Syria, Burma. These nations want to shield their weapons from outside scrutiny," Lugar said.

The vote to begin deliberations was 66-to-32, one shy of the 67 votes that would be needed to ratify the treaty. Of two non-voting senators, one was Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh, who would be expected to support the pact in a final vote.

All but nine Republicans voted against opening debate, including Missouri Senator Kit Bond, who sees the treaty as flawed. "I have severe reservations about requiring unilateral cuts -- only in our arsenal, none for the Russians -- and giving Russia, essentially, a vote on our missile defense decisions," he said.

Backers of the treaty contest Bond's assertions.

Other senators objected to the timing of the debate, noting that funding for the federal government runs out in a matter of days, and Congress has yet to approve a budget for the coming year. "With so little time left, we should focus on the funding of the government. To ram this [treaty] through at this crucial time of the year when we have a lot of other things we have to worry about, I think is just not right," said Utah Senator Orrin Hatch.

Senator Kerry expressed impatience with any time-based objections. "The [Senate] committees of jurisdiction have held more than 20 public and closed hearings and briefings. My own committee held 12 hearings. Every living former [U.S.] secretary of state, Republican and Democrat, supports this treaty. And last week, former-President George Herbert Walker Bush, who signed both START I and START II, issued a statement saying he, too, supports this treaty," Kerry said.

Opponents of consideration dropped a threat to insist on a full reading of the text of the voluminous treaty before deliberations began, a process that would have consumed an estimated 12-to-15 hours of Senate time.

Formal debate on New START is to begin Thursday.