WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Senate panel approved a new strategic nuclear arms control treaty with Russia on Thursday, advancing one of President Barack Obama’s key foreign policy goals to an uncertain future in the full Senate.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 14-4, with three Republicans joining Obama’s Democrats to endorse the new START treaty.
The full Senate must ratify the pact before it can go into effect, but with Congress in the hottest part of the political season before November 2 congressional elections, it is unclear when the treaty will come up for a vote.
The document Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed in April commits former Cold War foes Washington and Moscow to reduce deployed nuclear warheads by about 30 percent.
It picked up Republican support in the committee from Senators Bob Corker and Johnny Isakson. They voted yes along with Richard Lugar, the committee’s top-ranking Republican.
But since treaties need 67 votes to pass the full Senate, support of at least eight Republicans will be required. Most Republicans have remained uncommitted for months, leaving the treaty’s fate in limbo.
Still, arms control advocates said Thursday’s committee vote was encouraging. “Bipartisan support is growing, momentum is picking up,” said Tom Collina, research director for the Arms Control Association in Washington.
Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton applauded the committee vote and urged the Senate to quickly ratify the treaty.
The new START “is in our national security interest. It reduces the deployed nuclear forces of both the United States and Russia, provides strong verification measures, and continues to improve relations between our two nations - the world’s two largest nuclear weapon powers,” Obama said in a statement.
He wants the new START ratified this year as part of his “reset” of relations with Russia and a step toward his goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Russia must also ratify the treaty, but is waiting to see what the United States will do.
However, with so much on the Senate’s plate before the elections, the treaty is a likely candidate for the “lame duck” session after. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry said he did not anticipate a floor vote before November 2.
“I personally believe we will have the votes to ratify this,” Kerry told reporters.
Isakson decided to vote in favor partly because he believed the biggest threat to the United States was “a nuclear weapon in the hands of a rogue nation.” The treaty would provide insight into at least 90 percent of the world’s known nuclear weapons, he said.
“And I hope and pray that it will be a part of the foundation that insures no nuclear weapon is ever used by a terrorist,” Isakson told the committee.
The treaty is broadly supported as an important step forward in arms control by former senior security officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations.
But some Republican senators say they worry it may limit U.S. missile defenses, and some want Obama to promise to spend more money modernizing the nuclear weapons that remain.
The committee passed a resolution to try to assuage these concerns, without actually changing the treaty text.
Written by Lugar, the resolution declared that the treaty does not “impose any limitations on the deployment of missile defense” apart from one clause banning the use of missile silos or submarine launch tubes to house missile interceptors.
The resolution also said that if the government doesn’t adequately fund nuclear modernization, the president must report to Congress how he would remedy the shortfall — and whether it was still in U.S. interests to stay in the treaty.
At the insistence of Republican Jim DeMint, the committee adopted another declaration that the United States was free to develop its missile defenses. But DeMint was absent for the final vote on the treaty.
Republican James Risch suggested senators might not want to advance the treaty because of some “very serious” new intelligence information they received this week. But Kerry waved this away, saying the information did not have a direct impact. Neither he nor Risch elaborated on the matter.