WASHINGTON — In a powerful bipartisan endorsement for improved relations with Russia, the Senate unanimously approved a treaty that would cut active U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear warheads by two-thirds.
Senate Republicans said the Moscow Treaty will make the world safer by taking missile levels to their lowest point in 50 years. Democrats were skeptical the treaty would make Americans safer but recognized that it has at least a strong symbolic value in demonstrating unified political support for friendship and cooperation with Russia.
That message had added importance as President Bush tries to persuade Russia not to veto a U.N. resolution authorizing force to disarm Iraq.
The 95-0 vote Thursday "is truly remarkable," said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "This is bound to leave both Russians and Americans to consider the value of the relationship," he said in an interview.
The treaty 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. It was signed by President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin last May.
It reflects how the United States sees the nuclear threat as coming less from a clash of superpowers and more from smaller countries, such as North Korea, which is believed to have one or two plutonium bombs. North Korea 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 last May's summit.
Ratification is expected in the Russian state Duma within weeks. No further action is needed in Congress.
Many Democrats said the treaty would do little to strengthen U.S. security because it allows the weapons to be stored instead of destroyed.
"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 2012 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 Democratic presidential candidate, called it "as flimsy a treaty as the United States Senate ever considered" and "little more than a series of missed opportunities."
He and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on Armed Services, offered amendments that sought to strengthen Senate oversight of the treaty, but both were defeated on largely partisan votes.
Both he and Kerry ultimately supported the treaty.
During the debate, Levin called the treaty "a modest, positive step in U.S.-Russian relations."