New START, 9/11 Health Bill Clear the Senate

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With Vice President Biden presiding and Secretary of State Clinton looking on, the Senate ratified a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia on Wednesday by a 71-26 vote, clearing the necessary two-thirds majority and delivering President Obama a much sought after foreign policy victory to cap off an already prolific lame duck session of Congress. The agreement will limit the number of nuclear weapons under U.S. and Russian control as well as establish regular inspections for warhead storage sites. President Obama has pledged $85 million to modernize the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Thirteen Republicans joined Democrats to support START: Lamar Alexander, the only member of the GOP leadership team to vote for ratification, Judd Gregg, Bob Corker, Mike Cochran, Johnny Isakson, Dick Lugar, Susan Collins, Scott Brown, Mike Johanns, George Voinovich, Olympia Snowe, Lisa Murkowski and Bob  Bennett.

That vote came on the heels of unanimous Senate approval for a measure providing compensation to 9/11 rescue workers who suffered medical problems from exposure to toxic conditions at Ground Zero. Democrats, eager to pass the bill before adjourning for the year, struck a last-minute deal with Republicans to reduce the package to $4.2 billion over five years.

Senator Tom Coburn, the Republican Senator blocking the bill before reaching an agreement with New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, said his objections were only about cost. “I’ll stand in the way of anything that doesn’t make sense and doesn’t spend our money wisely,” he told ABC News, hailing the deal as “an agreement that costs less, doesn’t allow double-dipping, doesn’t allow exorbitant lawyer fees.” Senator Schumer was all smiles at a press conference following the vote. “Today is an amazing day,” he beamed. “It is a great day for New York… America rose to the occasion.” The bill, a long-time project of New York’s congressional delegation, will now head to the House for quick re-approval and on to the president’s desk.

START and the 9/11 health bill are two major legislative victories for Democrats at the end of an unusually productive lame duck session, which itself caps off an unprecedentedly productive Congress. A surely chuffed President Obama has scheduled a 4:15 p.m. ET news conference at the White House to take a victory lap before heading off to Hawaii for some R&R.