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WASHINGTON (AP) - The Republican-led Senate voted Wednesday to prohibit President Clinton from making deep unilateral cuts in the nation's nuclear arsenal - but to ease the prohibition for the next president.
With Senate Democrats crying foul, the Senate voted 51-47 - largely along party lines - to reject an effort to lift the five-year old prohibition completely.
Instead, the Senate went along with a proposal by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., to allow the president to make such warhead cuts - but only after a Pentagon review every four years.
That review is not set to be done until December 2001. Thus, the next president could benefit from the change but not the present one.
The vote comes as U.S.-Russian efforts to negotiate further warhead reductions are tangled in a related dispute over U.S. plans for a national anti-missile defense.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential contender, has said that, if elected, he would reduce the U.S. arsenal to its ``lowest possible number'' and suggested he would do so whether Russia agreed with the reductions or not.
But current law - first passed in 1995 and renewed each year since then - prohibits the president from reducing nuclear warheads below the 6,000 level called for in the Reagan-Gorbachev era START I treaty.
``Both Russia and the United States have more nuclear weapons than we need. This has been studied to death. Gov. Bush has it right,'' said Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., who led the unsuccessful effort to lift the prohibition.
Kerrey said the prohibition ``was put in here as a consequence of not trusting this particular president.''
The vote came as the Senate worked on a $309.8 billion defense bill.
The United States has 7,200 strategic nuclear warheads and Russia has 6,000.
The START II agreement, ratified by the Senate in 1996 and conditionally ratified last month by Russia, would reduce those arsenals to between 3,000 and 3,500 by 2007.
But conditions added by the Russian Duma have been criticized by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and other congressional conservatives - and the START II reductions have yet to take place.
The United States and Russia are now negotiating a START III treaty that would cut warheads even further, to 2,000 to 2,500. Russia has proposed going as low as 1,500 warheads.
Arms control advocates argue that it no longer makes sense to insist on the old Cold War 6,000-warhead level.
``This is an effort to hobble the president,'' said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. ``I do not believe it would be offered if the president were of another party.''
But Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., also a member of that panel, said: ``The ultimate goal is to have a careful ... review and make sure we do not unilaterally disarm this country.''
Republicans said the next president should be given increased flexibility to reduce nuclear arsenals - suggesting Clinton had come back empty-handed from last weekend's summit meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers, said the Senate had left in place another restriction, one denying funds for any presidential reduction in the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles that are capable of being launched within minutes.
Bush, in his May 23 speech on national security, had proposed doing just that, saying he wanted to remove some missiles from ``hair-trigger status.''
``The Republican-led Congress is desperately trying to find a way to stop additional reductions - even opposing reductions that George Bush said he would support,'' Kimball said.