The Senate cleared one of its final hurdles to adjournment Wednesday, voting 71-26 to ratify the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.
The move delivers a major foreign policy victory to President Barack Obama just days before the end of the 111th Congress. It also clears the way for the Senate to wrap up its final agenda items for the year and head home.
The GOP support needed to push START over the finish line came together Tuesday, after Republicans backed off threats to block the agreement if the Democrats brought it up during the lame-duck session. A two-thirds majority of all Senators present and voting were required for ratification.
There was no Democratic opposition to START. Republican attempts to amend the treaty and its preamble failed, although the Democrats did accept a few GOP amendments to the nonbinding resolution of ratification document.
Ratification was all but assured on Tuesday as 67 Senators, including 11 Republicans, voted to end debate on the treaty. The key Republican in that group was GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the third-ranking leader. No other Republican leader supported ratification.
Joining Alexander on the Republican side were retiring Sens. Bob Bennett (Utah) and George Voinovich (Ohio); Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine; Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska); and Foreign Relations ranking member Dick Lugar (Ind.).
Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, noting the partisanship that has characterized the 111th Congress, referred to this level of Republican support as significant.
“I would say to you that in today’s Washington, in today’s Senate, 70 votes is yesterday’s 95. I feel pretty good,” the Massachusetts Democrat said following Tuesday’s vote on the motion to end debate.
Ratification in the lame duck represents a significant victory for Obama and Senate Democrats — one that was far from certain to occur following the Nov. 2 elections.
Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) was the designated Republican point man on the issue, and he led its opposition. Kyl wanted to see debate on the treaty kicked to early next year. The Republican Conference will grow from 42 to 47 members in January.
A senior Democratic Senate aide credited Obama, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Kerry with the treaty’s rebound and the fact that the Senate was able to clear a bipartisan extension of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts quickly enough to allow Senators to take on other matters.
“Sen. Reid said he would map out a floor strategy to get it done,” the senior Democratic Senate aide said. “The White House said they would prefer START before ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ but Sen. Reid disagreed, believing that leaving START to the end was the better way to get it done.”
The repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring openly gay service members was approved by the Senate on Saturday. The START floor debate had begun two days earlier.
Some believe that Senate passage of a short-term, government-spending bill and an extension of the tax cuts helped clear the way for START’s ratification.
A senior Republican Senate aide said that those accomplishments didn’t necessarily put the GOP in a more cooperative mood, but they didn’t hurt either.
“Republicans refused to prioritize anything over taxes and spending for the lame duck,” the aide said. “The GOP drew a line in the sand over the top issues facing America.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.