WASHINGTON — A new U.S.-Russian nuclear arms treaty appears headed toward ratification — albeit a slow one — as Republicans vowed to raise procedural obstacles even though supporters claimed to have the 67 votes they need to win.
The Senate voted 66-32 to open debate on the New START treaty, and Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., who wasn't present, has said he'll vote to ratify it, bringing supporters to 67.
"I believe we will have the votes," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters. "We're not going to put the vote off until next year. We intend to have a vote sometime this year."
Senate GOP leaders acknowledged that several Republican senators intend to vote for New START, but indicated that they intend to use as many procedural roadblocks as possible, including a stream of amendments, in hopes in kicking the treaty into the new Congress, when Republican Senate ranks will expand by five. That would at least delay President Barack Obama's biggest foreign policy achievement to date.
The New START Treaty would restrict the U.S. and Russia at the end of a seven-year period to deploying no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads on 700 strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched missiles.
The new number of deployed warheads represents about a 30 percent reduction from the limit of 2,200 set in a 2002 treaty that's due to expire at the end of 2012.
Moreover, the new accord would allow the sides to resume inspections of each other's nuclear weapons, which have been suspended for just over a year, a gap that worries U.S. intelligence officials.
A new inspection system agreed on in the treaty will be more intrusive than the regime that ended last year. Among other measures, U.S. and Russian experts will be allowed for the first time to look inside the other's missiles and count the actual number of warheads they carry, rather than accept agreed-upon assumptions as they did before.
Republicans complain that the treaty contains language that could hinder U.S. missile defense development, although the Pentagon denies it and every living former Republican secretary of state endorses the treaty.
"This treaty isn't the holy grail, but in my view it's in the U.S. interests, and this is politics at play and has been for weeks," said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right policy group. "This seems so blatantly political. There's always been an element of denying President Obama a victory."
Obama made the treaty the cornerstone of his policy to "reset" relations with Moscow, which had soured under former President George W. Bush to their iciest level since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Nikolai Sokov, a former Soviet nuclear arms negotiator, said that the Kremlin considered New START a major test of whether Obama can deliver on promises he makes to foreign governments.
"They are watching very closely in Moscow," said Sokov, a senior research associate at Monterey Institute of International Studies' James Martin Center for Proliferation Studies. "They know they can do business with Obama, but they are not sure that Obama can do things he promised to do."
Opening debate on the treaty appeared in jeopardy earlier Wednesday when Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., threatened to require the bill to be read line-by-line on the Senate floor first, which would have taken up to 12 hours as time grows short before Congress adjourns.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs immediately denounced DeMint's threat as a "new low in putting political stunts ahead of our national security," and shortly afterward, DeMint backed down.
Several Republicans objected to being asked to ratify the treaty in the lame duck session without what they considered sufficient time to debate its merits. They said it was like last year, when the Senate held votes on health care legislation on Christmas Eve.
"And for the (Senate Majority) leader to suggest that for a couple of days this week, and then whatever time there may remain next before Christmas, is adequate to consider the treaty . . . well, I'll just say I think it's inappropriate," said Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., took umbrage at Kyl's remarks and DeMint's comment to the Politico newspaper that holding a vote right before Christmas would be "sacrilegious."
"I don't need to hear sanctimonious lectures of Senators Kyl and DeMint to remind me of what Christmas means," Reid said testily on the Senate floor. "My question . . . is where were their concerns about Christmas as we've had filibuster after filibuster on major pieces of legislation during this entire Congress?"
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY