Senate vote on nuclear treaty may be defining moment for Obama

The upcoming Senate vote on a U.S.-Russia nuclear arms treaty may turn out to be a defining moment for the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

If he wins the support of at least two-thirds of the Senate for the New START agreement in a vote that may come as early as Tuesday, President Obama could build on the victory as he turns to a long list of foreign policy challenges — including Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea and his broader plans to limit nuclear weapons.

Failure would be regarded in some world capitals as confirmation that the administration is too weak and preoccupied with domestic problems to put its stamp on world affairs.

With the Republican Senate leadership lined up against approving the treaty in the last days of a lame-duck session, the issue will be decided by a handful of GOP senators. Supporters are expected to vote to cut off debate on Tuesday, a step that would open the way for a final vote later in the day or on Wednesday.

The administration has made controlling nuclear weapons a major foreign policy goal and held out its “reset” of relations with Russia over the last two years as its most tangible international accomplishment. It views the New START treaty, which would reduce the ceiling on long-distance nuclear warheads by up to 30%, as the centerpiece of that relationship.


Russia has enormous influence in many key areas. It has close economic ties to Iran, including in civil nuclear power, and as a member of the U.N. Security Council, its cooperation is essential to pressure the Islamic Republic to accept limits on its nuclear program. Twenty years after Moscow ended its own war in Afghanistan, it has recently expressed a willingness to cooperate with the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries there. And Russia is one of five countries engaged in sporadic talks with North Korea about its nuclear program.

Other countries will also be watching. The vote will probably help them decide whether it’s in their interest to cooperate with Obama.

“At this point, he needs a foreign-policy win,” said Paul Saunders, a former State Department official at the Nixon Center in Washington.

The vote comes at a time when world powers have been reassessing the administration’s power in light of its midterm election setbacks, the unraveling this month of its strategy for Arab-Israeli peacemaking, and other reversals.

In Israel, some conservative political leaders have said they see Obama’s poll numbers and political strength ebbing, and have urged their government to push back harder against administration pressure.

One Senate Republican aide said many world powers attach great importance to a government’s ability to work out a major treaty with another world power.

“This matters a lot to them, and they’ve yet to see it,” said the aide, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

On Monday the Senate considered several possible amendments to the treaty, including one to increase the number of annual inspections of each country’s nuclear sites, and a second to increase the number of allowable nuclear weapon launchers.

The last START treaty took three years to ratify in the 1990s, but most U.S.-Russia arms treaties have won overwhelming bipartisan support. As recently as this summer, supporters believed New START would coast easily to ratification.

The treaty has wide support among former leaders of the U.S. foreign policy establishment from both parties, and is generally viewed as an incremental step in scaling back the vast nuclear arsenals of the two Cold War rivals.

But the treaty aroused conservatives’ fears of Russia, and became entangled in the broader political struggle over Obama’s record.

In recent days, as the administration pushed hard for votes on contentious issues such as immigration and the treatment of gays in the military, the debate has become more embittered.

Saunders said he feared the final hours of deliberations had polarized the two parties on Russia issues in a way that “will be extremely unconstructive going forward.” Even if Obama ekes out a victory, it will be a narrow one that may not inspire much confidence in Moscow or other foreign capitals, he said.

A rejection may make cooperation more difficult with the Russians on future nuclear arms reduction issues, but also on related issues such as the coordinated missile defense system the two countries have been discussing, Saunders said.

Russia already has expressed its annoyance that Senate action is taking so long. Officials say they will not bring it up for a ratification vote in Moscow until Washington acts. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said last week that if the U.S. failed to approve the treaty, Russia might have to build up its own nuclear forces.

On Monday, Russian officials warned the Senate not to change the language because Moscow would not be willing to renegotiate it.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, told the Interfax news agency that the treaty, “worked out on the strict basis of parity, in our view fully answers to the national interest of Russia and the United States.”

He said the treaty “cannot be opened up and become the subject of new negotiations.”

Some Republican senators have been arguing that the treaty benefits Russia more than the United States, and have cited their concerns that it could limit the ability to expand U.S. missile defense systems.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky argued that every Republican issue should be addressed, and that “our top concern should be the safety and security of our nation, not some politician’s desire to declare a political victory and host a press conference before the end of the year.”

Both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton worked the phones to win Republican votes. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a letter to the Senate, emphasizing his view that the treaty would protect U.S. interests.

Administration officials fear that the treaty will face a far tougher process if it is delayed until next year, when the Senate will include five more Republicans.

Aides to Senate supporters of the treaty said that of the nine Republican members they need, they have four committed supporters: Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and George V. Voinovich of Ohio. Scott Brown of Massachusetts announced Monday that he would also vote to ratify.

Considered as likely or possible votes in favor are Bob Corker of Tennessee, Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Sens. Bob Bennett of Utah, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Thad Cochran of Mississippi are considered maybes.

Advocates say that they don’t know how Sen. John McCain of Arizona will vote but that the White House has been working hard to win him over because it thinks McCain could bring along other Republican votes.

The treaty is supported by California’s senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats.