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Does Obama Have the Votes for Another Nuclear Treaty?

Obama waves to invited guests Wednesday in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. (Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images)
Obama waves to invited guests Wednesday in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. (Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama proposed a one-third reduction in both American and Russian nuclear arms today, but any agreement would face long odds of approval by the Senate.

The proposal was the substantive centerpiece of the president’s symbolically resonant speech at Brandenburg Gate, which once divided East and West Germany. That’s where Obama drew a rapturous crowd as a candidate five years ago, where Ronald Reagan gave his “Tear down that wall” Cold War admonition a quarter-century ago, and where John F. Kennedy declared “Ich bin ein Berliner” half a century ago.

“We may no longer live in fear of global annihilation, but so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe,” Obama said.

It was not immediately clear, from either his text or materials released by the White House, whether the president is proposing negotiations on another Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or a less formalized way of getting the two sides “to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures,” as he said.

He called for reducing the number of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear warheads by one-third from the current limit of 1,550 — the amount set in the New START ratified by the Senate in December 2010.

The vote then was a decisive 71-26. But that came only after an intense lobbying effort by arms control advocates and the administration wore down GOP leadership resistance to considering the treaty during the lame-duck session — when it was seen as having its only shot because some Republicans who were departing, or had just won new terms, would be willing to vote for it.

Thirteen GOP senators voted “yes,” but only seven remain: Lamar Alexander, Thad Cochran, Susan Collins, Bob Corker, Johnny Isakson, Mike Johanns and Lisa Murkowski. Even if all of them endorsed the reductions Obama called for today, and were joined by all the Democrats, that would leave the treaty half a dozen or so votes short of the two-thirds majority necessary.

And two senior Republicans on Senate Armed Services, ranking member James M. Inhofe and Kelly Ayotte, blistered the president’s proposal within minutes of its unveiling.

They said they worried the existing nuclear stockpile was too antiquated, that Russia may not be living up to its 2010 promises, that the proposal would not address Russia’s advantage in tactical nuclear weapons and that, in Inhofe’s words, “a country whose conventional military strength has been weakened due to budget cuts ought not to consider further nuclear force reductions while turmoil in the world is growing.”

Such deep reductions would inevitably effect tens of billions of dollars in projected defense spending during the next several years, including on the next generations of nuclear submarines and bombers now in development.

Obama said in his speech that the departments of State and Energy, and the intelligence agencies, have all concluded that the one-third reduction would leave the United States with a sufficiently “strong and credible strategic deterrent,” especially in light of the changing nature of the most potent (and non-nuclear) potential attacks against the country.

Obama also used his Berlin speech to call on the Senate to ratify one international atomic weapons accord already on its docket — the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. But there is essentially no talk at the Capitol of that happening. But the president’s speech was a signal that he hasn’t stopped pursuing one of the central elements of the national security agenda he laid out at the start of his presidency.

The president also announced he would host an international summit in the United States during his final year in office to address the global flow of nuclear weapons and material. This appeared to be a slight nod to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who reportedly told the president during their frosty conversation in Ireland this week that he would not be willing to join arms reductions talks unless they included the other nations known to have nuclear weapons: France, China, Britain, Israel, India and Pakistan.

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