MELISSA BLOCK, host:
A new treaty to further reduce nuclear arsenals in the U.S. and Russia cleared a key hurdle today. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to recommend ratification of the new START treaty by the full Senate. It will take the votes of at least eight Republicans for that to happen. Today, three of them joined Democrats in backing the measure, even as many other Republicans remain deeply skeptical.
NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA: The big challenge for Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry today was to win Republican support for the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which replaces the now-expired START-1 treaty signed by the first President Bush.
This latest accord would cut the number of nuclear warheads deployed by the U.S. and Russia by about 30 percent, just over 1,500 each.
Kerry reminded GOP skeptics on the committee that when arms limitations talks began years ago, each country had stockpiled more than 50,000 nuclear weapons.
Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts; Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee): That's when Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev went to Reykjavik and came out and said, you know, we got to stop this. This is crazy.
WELNA: But as today's hearing began, just one Senate Republican had publicly endorsed new START, and more would eventually be needed to get the required two-thirds majority for ratification by the full Senate.
That sole supporter was the panel's top Republican, Richard Lugar. And today, he offered an amendment to the treaty aimed at mollifying his GOP colleagues.
Senator RICHARD LUGAR (Republican, Indiana): The new START treaty serves the national security interests of the United States. I believe my proposed amendment addresses concerns raised about this treaty. And I urge each senator to support it.
WELNA: Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson pledged to support for Lugar's amendment, so did Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, who sought to dispel concerns that the treaty would block the U.S. from building missile defense systems.
Senator BOB CORKER (Republican, Tennessee): I've read the treaty. I've read the protocols. I've read the annexes. And maybe I'm a nerd.
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Sen. CORKER: I have, you know, sat through lengthy, lengthy secure and classified briefings on all three, and there is nothing in this treaty, nothing that limits our ability to be involved in missile defense.
WELNA: That was not enough to convince one major skeptic, South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint.
Senator JIM DeMINT (Republican, South Carolina): But I think it would be naive and maybe even dishonest, my colleagues at the table, to say that this allows us to develop a robust missile defense system that would protect the people of the United States, because we know that's not true.
WELNA: DeMint offered an amendment that would commit the U.S. in the treaty to building a missile defense system.
Chairman Kerry, sensing a vote on such a measure could further polarize the committee, proposed alternative language to DeMint.
Sen. KERRY: If we were to reach an agreement on that language and we were to accept an amendment or work on it to accept it on the floor, would you then vote for the treaty?
Sen. DeMINT: I very well could, but I'd have to look at how the rest of the treaty...
(Soundbite of laughter)
WELNA: In the end, compromise language that softened DeMint's measure was agreed on. But when the committee finally voted on the treaty itself, DeMint had already left. Three committee Republicans sided with all the Democrats, and Kerry expressed confidence even more would do so in the full Senate.
Sen. KERRY: I personally believe we will have the votes to ratify this. I think that what happened here today was very important. The breadth of it being bipartisan, 14 votes to 4 was, I think, registered against it. I think it's a very significant vote. And I think it augers very well for the Senate today as a whole.
WELNA: Kerry said that debate will likely occur in a post-election lame duck session.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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