WASHINGTON — The Senate ratified the strategic nuclear arms treaty between the United States and Russia on Wednesday, fulfilling President Barack Obama's major foreign policy goal for the lame-duck session.
By a 71-26 vote, the Senate approved the treaty, known as New START, which Republicans had blocked.
Under the treaty, Russia and the United States agree to limit the number of nuclear warheads to 1,550 each, down from the ceiling of 2,200. The pact also establishes a system for monitoring and verification. The treaty was signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on April 8.
Thirteen Republicans joined all of the Senate's Democrats in voting for ratification, helping to exceed the 67 votes required. Florida's senators split on the final vote, with Democrat Bill Nelson voting yes and Republican George LeMieux voting no. Three senators — all Republicans — were not present.
Even though passage had been expected, some Republicans continued their opposition right up to the final vote.
Speaking on the floor of the Senate on Wednesday morning, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, argued that the treaty should be defeated because it fails to address limits on tactical weapons, an area in which Russia has a numerical advantage. Tactical weapons are smaller and designed for use on the battlefield, as opposed to strategic weapons, which are delivered by missile, bomber or from a submarine.
Cornyn also cited past Republican objections including that the pact's "verification provisions are weak, allowing only 18 inspections a year for more than 1,500 weapons."
"And as we have discussed, the preamble is ambiguous," the Republican insisted, arguing it would limit the United States' ability to deploy a missile defense system.
Democrats insist that there is no linkage on missile defense and that the United States is free to deploy a system in Europe. The Obama administration has also argued that the treaty is needed to step up verification. Top Pentagon officials have backed the administration in recent briefings.
Debate ended in a burst of agreement after both sides accepted a bipartisan amendment designed to meet some GOP objections on the missile-defense issue. The changes do not affect treaty language, however. Russian officials warned Monday that they wouldn't renegotiate terms in the treaty, which still must be approved by the Russian parliament.
Earlier, the Senate approved $725.7 billion for military programs. The authorization includes $159.3 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House on Wednesday accepted the Senate version and sent the legislation to Obama for his signature.