WASHINGTON – A new arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia seemed headed for certain ratification after Republican opposition crumbled Tuesday beneath a torrid campaign of White House pressure and persuasion.
Eleven Republican senators joined Democrats Tuesday in cutting off debate over the treaty and more could join when the Senate votes to ratify the treaty today, a snowballing effect that would hand the White House a rare major foreign policy victory.
The Republican support for the agreement, known as the New START Treaty, came in defiance of top GOP leaders, who opposed ratification but did not insist that the conference, famed for its discipline, remain in lockstep on the issue.
That freed a handful of moderate Republicans to abandon the minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and join the party’s respected foreign policy sage, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, in support of the treaty.
Underscoring the schism among Republicans, the party’s No. 3 leader, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, announced his support for the treaty, saying it would make Americans safer and more secure. Other Republicans followed suit.
“We know when we’ve been beaten,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, before Tuesday’s procedural vote, which he opposed.
The administration exerted pressure by assembling a phalanx of national security officials from four decades of Republican and Democratic administrations to support the treaty, including former Republican Secretary of States Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, as well as former President George H.W. Bush.
The effort intensified in recent days, with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton personally lobbying senators. Obama also issued promises to seek billions of dollars to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal and follow through on U.S. missile defense programs abroad, a potential source of jobs at home.
White House staffers set up operations in a Capitol office to better respond to questions and address concerns about the treaty, a full court press rare for the Obama administration but welcomed by Democratic congressional leaders.
“We are on the brink of writing the next chapter in the 40-year history of wrestling with the threat of nuclear weapons,” said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, following the 67-28 vote.
Adoption of the treaty would be another bipartisan victory for Obama in the lame-duck session, which has already adopted a White House-supported package of tax cuts and unemployment benefits, and legislation to allow gays to serve openly in the military.
Democrats next will try to dislodge a GOP blockade of legislation to provide aid to ailing Sept. 11 rescuers. Republicans face growing criticism over that stance, which could be tested in a Senate vote today.