Senate approves New START treaty and help for 9/11 first responders

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The Senate approved a nuclear arms treaty with Russia and a bill to aid Sept. 11 first responders Wednesday, wrapping up a lame-duck congressional session that left Democrats jubilant and some Republicans feeling whipsawed.

The treaty, dubbed New START, appeared to be in trouble as recently as last weekend, when the two top Republicans in the Senate came out against it. But as has repeatedly been the case over the final days of the 111th Congress, other GOP senators failed to hold the party line and joined Democrats to pass the accord in a 71-26 vote.

Republican opposition had similarly crumbled in the face of votes on repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gay troops, a food safety bill and long-stymied legislation to help Sept. 11 firefighters and other first responders who are suffering health problems as a result of exposure to the dust and rubble of the World Trade Center.


It was a remarkable turn of fortune for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other Democratic leaders, who seemingly were left powerless and dispirited after a rout in the November election that handed control of the House in the next Congress to the GOP.

The lame-duck session was expected to yield little in the way of results, especially after Republican leaders vowed not to allow any legislation through until an agreement on extending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts was reached.

But once that deal was struck with the White House, Democrats turned their attention to remaining priorities that would have been difficult to pass in next year’s more conservative Congress. And to the consternation of some Republicans, they largely succeeded — with the help of moderate members of the GOP.

“I’m amazed at what they were able to do,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Wednesday. “I call it capitulation. At the end of the day, our weak links were exposed.”

“ President Obama was on the verge of being the next Jimmy Carter, and incompetent GOP messaging and legislating has made him into a modern-day FDR,” said Brian Darling, a Senate analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation.

There were Republican victories, for sure. The tax-cut deal gave the GOP almost everything it wanted. It was able to filibuster the DREAM Act, legislation that would have established a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants, and Democrats were able to secure only a three-month resolution to fund the government, ensuring Republicans will have a strong say in the budget.


“It seems that the GOP snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” Darling said.

Starting in January, Republicans will have six more votes in the Senate, making the Democrats ability to pass legislation that much harder.

But Wednesday there was a sense that Republicans had let a president weakened by the November election off the mat.

“Republicans seemed so intent on cutting a deal on extending tax cuts for all, they lost focus on other important issues,” Darling said. “They just didn’t have the will to fight on New START and ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”

The Sept. 11 bill traveled from near-certain oblivion to passage by unanimous consent in a matter of days. The key was an agreement Wednesday with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to reduce the overall cost of the legislation. Following the Senate vote, the House passed the bill and sent it to the president’s desk.

Republicans weren’t helped by news coverage that portrayed the GOP as on the other side of an issue involving the attacks on New York and Washington.

“It’s amazing they chose to make that their last stand,” said Matt Bennett, an analyst with Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank in Washington.


That came on the heels of GOP opposition to a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia that enables the United States to monitor the former Soviet nuclear stockpile, and to a bill that repealed a Pentagon practice that was seen as discriminating against gays and lesbians, and to a bill, the DREAM Act, of high importance to Latinos.

The issues were far from the tax-and-spending message that Republicans had so consistently and successfully employed during the congressional election.

Republicans “were confronted by a number of issues that were difficult for a lot of members of the caucus to oppose,” Bennett said. “Their discipline crumbled.”

But some Senate Republicans didn’t share Graham’s view that Reid and the Democrats had gotten the best of them.

“I don’t feel that way at all,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who voted in favor of the New START treaty. He cited the tax deal and the three-month budget resolution. “We had a very good lame-duck, and we set ourselves up to perform on deficit reduction.”

Still, it was hard not to view the START vote as anything but a stumble for the GOP. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, along with Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona, led a furious charge against the treaty, the ratification of which required 67 votes.


Instead, the treaty drew four more than that, with 13 Republicans joining every Democrat to ratify the agreement — although supporters had hoped for even more. It was clear as the hours passed Wednesday that the fight was lost and members wanted to leave Washington for Christmas. “Everybody wants to get home,” Kyl said, while summarizing his opposition.

The margin of the vote likely will be read in Moscow as an indicator of the level of American support for the arms reduction deal, and a measure of Obama’s political influence at home. The last three arms reduction deals with Russia had passed with 87, 93 and 95 votes.

For some senators, it was the final day of their careers. Sen. George V. Voinovich (R- Ohio), who is retiring after two terms, earned the enmity of conservatives for voting in favor of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the New START treaty.

He left the chamber after casting his final vote and strolled alone to the top of the Capitol’s East Front steps. There he pulled out a digital camera and snapped photos, like any tourist.

Paul Richter of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.