WASHINGTON – The Senate unanimously ratified a treaty Thursday that would cut active U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear warheads by two-thirds, acting as a separate nuclear crisis was building in Asia.
The Moscow Treaty, hailed by the Bush administration as symbolizing a new era of friendship and cooperation with Russia, would take missile levels to the lowest point in 50 years.
The pact calls on both nations to cut their strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,700 to 2,200 deployed warheads by 2012 -- down from about 6,000 for the United States and 5,500 for Russia.
"The treaty is of critical importance to make the world a safer place," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., shortly before the vote.
Democrats said the treaty will not make Americans safer because it allows the weapons to be stored instead of destroyed. But they said it was better than nothing and overwhelmingly joined Republicans in the 95-0 vote. A two-thirds majority was needed for approval.
"The treaty is a modest, positive step in U.S.-Russian relations," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Senators were mindful that rejection would be a harsh blow to U.S.-Russian relations at a time when President Bush is trying to persuade Russia not to veto a U.N. resolution authorizing force against Iraq.
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said the treaty could help Bush win Russia's support.
"It's the reason why Russia might eventually work with the United States in the Security Council on Iraq, because they value the relationship. They understand something new and important is happening here," he said in an interview.
The treaty reflects how the nuclear threat has largely shifted from a superpower rivalry to concerns that a small country such as North Korea with a handful of nuclear weapons could endanger its neighbors and possibly the United States. North Korea, which is believed to have one or two plutonium bombs, has stepped up its nuclear program and could develop several more weapons within months.
That shift was evident last year when Russia offered only moderate opposition to the United States' withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. It could also be seen in Bush's proposal for a limited missile defense system that might eventually offer protection from a few North Korean missiles, but would be overwhelmed by a larger-scale attack.
The pact also shows the evolution of arms treaties. Cold-War era agreements required years of negotiations, resulting in thousands of pages of documents and often bitter -- and sometimes unsuccessful -- ratification fights in the Senate.
The new treaty, by comparison, is a three-page document that was quickly worked out by U.S. and Russian negotiators ahead of a summit last May between Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ratification is expected in the Russian state Duma within weeks. No further action is needed in the U.S. Congress, because the Constitution gives the Senate sole authority over foreign treaties.
The Democrats' main objection was the treaty's failure to call for the destruction of the weapons.
"Once this treaty is fully implemented, the United States will still have approximately 6,000 nuclear weapons. There will just be more weapons in storage," said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island. "And similarly, Russians could have approximately 5,500 nuclear weapons, but they will be non-operational."
Other Democratic concerns were that the treaty had no timetable for reducing weapons before the final deadline. They also said the treaty lacks verification procedures and makes it too easy for either side to withdraw.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a declared presidential candidate, called it "as flimsy a treaty as the United States Senate ever considered" and "little more than a series of missed opportunities."
Lugar suggested, though, that it offered a good starting point.
"We have attempted to achieve a great deal here and we have much further to go as we negotiate with our Russian friends," he said on the Senate floor.
Not voting on the treaty were Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., Bob Graham, D-Fla., Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Zell Miller, D-Ga., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore.