UNDER intense pressure of time and confounding the expectations of his doubters, Barack Obama has scored a historic foreign policy coup.
The Senate ratified the new Start nuclear arms reduction treaty hours after Mr Obama signed the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gays in the military.
With Air Force One waiting to take him to Hawaii for Christmas, Mr Obama held a press conference seen as a victory lap after a rush of legislative victories less than two months after his party’s midterm election defeat.
He said the new arms treaty “sends a powerful signal to the world”.
“I’m glad the Democrats and Republicans came together to approve my top national security priority for this session of Congress, the new START Treaty.
“This is the most significant arms control agreement in nearly two decades and it will make us safer and reduce our nuclear arsenals along with Russia.
“The strong bipartisan vote in the senate sends a powerful signal to the world that Republicans and Democrats stand together on behalf of our security.”
The new strategic arms reduction talks (Start) treaty won 71 Senate votes after Republicans abandoned their party’s effort to prevent ratification during a “lame duck” Congressional session that has proved anything but lame.
The treaty will pave the way for cuts of about a third in the size of the US and Russian long-range nuclear arsenals and will allow the resumption of inspections of nuclear sites by both sides for the first time since they lapsed with Start II last year.
Hours before the Senate voted, the White House also struck a deal with Congress to push through a Bill on health benefits for emergency workers who helped on September 11, 2001, before Christmas.
The main significance of the new treaty, described by aides as the next step towards Mr Obama’s vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, is political. It will reassure other world leaders that the US President can still deliver on at least some of his pledges. It will also ensure that Mr Obama’s “reset” of relations with Russia can continue and it has split the Republicans before the new Congress has even been sworn in.
“We know when we’ve been beaten,” Orrin Hatch, the Republican Senator from Utah, said before the vote. He was not expected to support ratification but one of those who broke ranks, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, summed up the reality behind the treaty when he said that he would back it because America would still have “enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker to kingdom come”.
As little as two weeks ago ratification seemed unlikely because of the opposition of Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the leading Republican negotiator on nuclear arms control. He voted ‘no’ yesterday despite a promise of $US85 billion over 10 years to modernise the US stockpile.
Others gave in to the weight of conservative endorsements that the White House has spent much of the past fortnight assembling.
Five former Republican Secretaries of State and every current member of the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff backed the treaty.
Bob Corker, the other Republican Senator from Tennessee, said of the Joint Chiefs, “every single one of these gentlemen was appointed by a Republican president”.
The Republican strategy of denying Mr Obama any new accomplishments to boast of when he seeks re-election began to founder when he reached a bipartisan deal on tax cuts earlier this month.
That deal enraged liberals because it extended tax cuts for high as well as the middle and lower income voters. It will add nearly $1 trillion to the US deficit but it is also the main reason for a 9 per cent rise in Mr Obama’s approval rating among independents and moderate Republicans in the latest Gallup poll.
The repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy, was opposed by most Republican Senators against the advice of Robert Gates, the Defence Secretary, and Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
A new political reality will confront the President on his return from Hawaii, with a Republican majority sworn in in the House of Representatives and a Senate majority cut to only three votes.
Yesterday though, the White House was triumphant. “How much would you have bet me that we would get all that we are about to get done, done?” Robert Gibbs, Mr Obama’s Press Secretary, said.
Professor Larry Sabato, of the University of Virginia, said on Twitter: “It’s official. Like it or not, this lame duck session is the most productive of the 15 held since World War Two.”