WASHINGTON Dec. 21, 2010 -- A contentious nuclear arms control pact with Russia, known as New START, today secured enough support from Republicans, giving Democrats the 67 votes they needed -- at least on paper -- to ratify the treaty before Congress goes out of session this week.
The Senate voted on a procedural measure that ended debate on the treaty and scheduled a vote, which is expected on Wednesday.
The Obama administration had accused Republicans of delaying a vote to deny the president a major foreign policy victory, saying they are playing politics with national security.
"Any objections at this point are more about politics than substance," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters yesterday. Nevertheless, the administration held a last minute briefing on Capitol Hill yesterday to answer any lingering concerns.
At its core, the treaty would reduce the American and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals down to under 1,550 warheads within seven years, 30 percent less than limits imposed by the 2002 Moscow Treaty and nearly two thirds lower than limits under the original START treaty that was signed in 1991. Intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, submarine ballistic missile launchers, and heavy bombers would be limited to 800 per side, only 700 of which would be allowed to be deployed.
It would also return U.S. nuclear inspectors to Russia to verify compliance with those arms reductions for the first time since inspectors were forced to leave when the old treaty expired last December.
The Obama administration had struggled to win Republican support for the treaty despite numerous briefings with senators and their staffs after the text was signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev on April 8.
Key Republicans had raised objections over certain aspects of the treaty. Specifically, they had voiced concern about whether the treaty would constrain the United States' ability to deploy a missile defense program or modernize its nuclear facilities.
The administration had countered that language on missile defense in the treaty's preamble is non-binding and they have pledged billions of dollars over the next decade to modernize the United States' nuclear arsenal.
Other Republicans also pointed out that this treaty does not constrain either country's ability to deploy short-range tactical nuclear weapons. The Obama administration noted, however, that no treaty has ever covered tactical nuclear weapons. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., said this week that passage of New START, which covers longer-range strategic weapons, would enable a later discussion on tactical weapons.
Some Republicans had also called for a change of wording in the treaty itself, which would require going back to the negotiating table with Russia to agree on a new text. The Russian foreign minister this week said his country would not renegotiate the text, which had already taken months longer to agree on, than expected.
Gen. Brent Scowcroft (ret.), who served as National Security Advisor to two Republican presidents, told ABC News' Jake Tapper yesterday that he has been "frustrated" in his efforts to convince fellow Republicans to vote for the treaty.
"It's baffling me," he said.
"It doesn't tie our hands on missile defense," Scowcroft said, "as the president has already demonstrated; we're moving ahead on missile defense on Europe."
"There are things in the treaty people don't like," he continued, "but right now we have no oversight over what Russians are doing inside with their own nuclear systems" because the previous START treaty expired one year ago this month. "This would restore that, so we can carry forward all the accounting, the rules, the assurances, the inspections -- all the things giving us the confidence to go ahead. Without those it seems to me we're absolutely nowhere."
Other Republican foreign policy heavyweights including former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice, George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, and former President George H.W. Bush had also expressed their support for New START.
The administration believed it would get the necessary support to approve the pact, but it wasn't taking any chances. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remained in Washington to push for ratification before leaving town for vacation. In recent weeks, Clinton called nearly two dozen senators urging them to vote yes.
Today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a statement pushing for ratification.
"This treaty stands on its merits, and its prompt ratification will strengthen U.S. national security," he said.
Yesterday, Sen. Kerry released a letter from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, supporting treaty ratification.
"This treaty has the full support of your uniformed military, and we all support ratification," Mullen wrote.
Support for the treaty emerged today from some Republicans, notably the third ranking Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, and Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah. Those yes votes gave Democrats reason for optimism despite vows over the weekend from the top two Republicans, minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and whip Jon Kyl of Arizona to oppose the treaty.
ABC News' Jake Tapper, Jonathan Karl, Matthew Jaffe, and Luis Martinez contributed to this report.