Updated at 7:53 a.m. on November 18.
Senate Democrats and Republicans strategized in party caucuses on how to proceed regarding the New START agreement, following the statement by Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., that a ratification vote was unlikely by year's end, staff aides said.
"I think it's going to be hard," one Senate source said Wednesday of the odds that the chamber would ultimately approve the U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control accord. "Hard does not mean impossible."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met Wednesday with the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- both of them New START advocates -- to rally support for the agreement in the chamber.
"It is this Congress that has done its homework, analyzed the treaty, gone to the hearings," said panel Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass. "These are the senators who have the responsibility to vote."
The president is expected to host a White House meeting with Kerry and a bipartisan group of former national security leaders today to promote ratification, according to congressional sources. Obama last week reportedly told his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, that New START ratification would be his highest foreign affairs priority for the lame-duck legislative session.
Obama administration officials to date have pinned their hopes on achieving a deal with Kyl, in which he would agree to support the replacement to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty if his concerns about funding for nuclear-weapon modernization and other related issues were resolved.
Many Republican senators have been awaiting Kyl's word on the matter before declaring their own position on ratification of the agreement, which President Obama and Medvedev signed in April.
The senator in July called the accord "relatively benign," but also raised concerns about Obama's broader nuclear weapon policies and how the pact fit into the president's "utopian" vision for global nuclear disarmament.
Emphasizing a need to resume atomic arms inspections and data exchanges between the two nations suspended late last year, administration officials initially pressed for ratification before the August congressional recess. When the Foreign Relations Committee delayed action on the matter, the White House began calling for a floor vote by the end of December.
Senate consent to the treaty would require 67 votes -- a tally that would demand nine Republican votes during the lame-duck session, which began this week. If action on ratification instead awaits the new Congress to be seated in January, five additional GOP votes would be needed.
Yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden confirmed that the White House told Kyl it was prepared to add $4.1 billion in funds for the nuclear complex over the next five years, on top of an earlier pledge to increase such spending by $10 billion during the next decade.
"President Obama has made an extraordinary commitment to ensure the modernization of our nuclear infrastructure, which had been neglected for several years before he took office," Biden said in a written statement.
Given broad support for the agreement from dozens of national security leaders in both parties, and in light of the pact's importance to U.S.-Russian security, "the time to act is now and we will continue to seek its approval by the Senate before the end of the year," the vice president said.
Under New START, Moscow and Washington pledged to cap their strategic nuclear warheads at 1,550, down from a ceiling of 2,200 by 2012. It also would limit delivery platforms -- like bomber aircraft, ICBMs and sea-launched missiles -- to 700, with another 100 held in reserve.
Kyl signaled yesterday that he was not ready to lend his support to the treaty -- at least not yet.
"When Majority Leader Harry Reid asked me if I thought the treaty could be considered in the lame duck session, I replied I did not think so given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization," Kyl said in a written statement.
"I appreciate the recent effort by the administration to address some of the issues that we have raised and I look forward to continuing to work" with treaty advocates in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill, he said.
"Some have suggested we should hit the pause button, that it's too difficult to do this treaty in a lame-duck session," Clinton responded at the Capitol building today. "I strongly disagree. This is exactly what the American people expect us to do: to come together and do what is necessary to protect our country."
In fact, Kyl's statement triggered massive head-scratching yesterday afternoon among Washington officialdom and policy wonks alike. Was he signaling doom for the treaty, or attempting to exact additional concessions before offering his endorsement?
"It's over," one senior GOP staff aide declared. "It's quite dead."
This congressional source and others asked not to be named so that they might be more candid in discussing the sensitive issue.
"I don't doubt there are enough Republicans wanting to vote for this treaty," said another staffer. "But that doesn't mean they will."
Without the Arizona Republican's blessing, few lawmakers in the party appear willing to step forward with their support. Though Kyl has not elaborated publicly on his brief statement, several Capitol Hill aides and congressional watchers said he appears to be concerned about the possibility of being outflanked on his right.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a rising star in his party's right wing, has denounced New START as "another Obama giveaway at the expense of U.S. citizens." There are also some indications that newly elected Republicans will oppose the treaty when the 112th Congress convenes early next year.
Conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation's lobbying arm have worked to mobilize public opposition to the pact, targeting lawmakers such as Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who have staked out more moderate positions on ratification.
The possibility that fundraising could dry up for Republican senators who support the treaty -- particularly at a time when national security concerns take a back seat to issues like jobs and the economy -- has GOP lawmakers running scared, several pundits said.
That doesn't mean ratification will not happen, according to Kerry.
"I talked with Senator Kyl today and I do not believe the door is closed to considering New START during the lame-duck session," he said in a statement released late yesterday afternoon. He added that discussions would continue with the aim of having the agreement "ratified by the Senate this year."
"I do not believe the junior senator from Arizona has the final word on this critical issue," treaty backer Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, told Global Security Newswire. "I expect that the military and security leaders of our country will speak out swiftly and strongly" in support of prompt ratification, he said.
Particularly in light of the Democratic losses on Election Day, the Obama administration's public calls on the Senate to approve New START would have to be underscored by significantly stepped-up deal-making behind the scenes, others argued.
"We are in the early innings of these negotiations, because the administration has not had the meetings it needs to have," said Henry Sokolski, a conservative voice on arms control and nonproliferation matters.
He urged the White House to help interested Republican lawmakers develop a "storyboard" they could cite to constituents to justify voting in favor of New START -- one that would be compelling enough to insulate them from criticism from the right that ratification was a mistake.
"That is what the administration has to pony up," said Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. "And what happened with the election is what was required to [make] that compelling story got more expensive."
In his view, more budget dollars are not necessarily what is needed, but rather political horse-trades that senators can sell back home as a net win.
Jeffrey Lewis of the Monterey Institute of International Studies largely agreed, saying that given the recent loss of Democratic seats in the Senate and leadership of the House, the administration would have to expend more effort and political capital to achieve ratification.
"It's not that the elections changed the vote count, it's that the situation changed for the Republicans," he told GSN.
To many, it remains unclear what -- if anything -- would satisfy Kyl enough to win his support for the U.S.-Russian pact.
"If you want a deal, normally you're willing to explain what you want," one senior Senate aide said of the Arizona senator and his staff. "No one has done that."
Some on Capitol Hill are even questioning whether the Senate's No. 2 Republican entered the negotiations with the White House in good faith, or if instead he sought to extract administration pledges for a higher nuclear modernization budget without ever intending to deliver votes on New START.
"He neither makes nor keeps deals," one senior Republican aide grumbled. "He is forever saying, '-- and this, too.' And it's happened again."
Sokolski cast doubt on this view, though, opining that if Kyl "wants to maintain a leadership position in the Senate, he cannot do that."
Among treaty advocates who fear New START's demise, finger pointing has clearly begun. Vitriol is being heaped in almost equal measure on Kyl and the Obama administration. Some are even quietly faulting the president himself, noting that he has yet to throw himself actively into the effort to win ratification votes.
Faced with Kyl's refusal to seal a deal, the administration should have worked hard to score support in separate negotiations with a host of other GOP senators, Lewis and others have argued. Any early successes in such a lobbying effort could have served warning to Kyl that his role as a leader on the issue might be imperiled, perhaps forcing his support, according to this view.
"You go peel off other members of the [Republican] caucus," said one Senate aide. "You go meet with them one by one."
"I think the administration has had a very difficult time doing that from the start because the level of discipline in the Republican caucus has been very high," another Senate source said.
Republican lawmakers who have been willing to find common ground with Democrats on national security issues have at times been pushed onto GOP sidelines, said this source, citing Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Richard Lugar, R-Ind., as a notable example.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on its legislative strategy and timing by press time. However, spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters today at a press conference that the administration believes it can obtain enough votes, with or without Kyl, to ratify the accord.
"This is something that is very important -- not just to this president, not just to this administration -- but important to us as a country," Gibbs said. "And if adding another meeting to what the team has done makes that possible, I'm sure we would certainly not rule it out."
In the view of one Senate staffer, the time has passed for political negotiations to bear fruit, to the detriment of both the White House and Kyl.
"They ran to each other and are desperately in an embrace of death -- a quixotic, bizarre dance of death -- that will end up not redounding to the benefit of [anyone], because we will end up losing both the START treaty and the nuclear weapons complex funding," said the senior aide.
Despite the early recriminations, other Washington insiders said it is perhaps not too late for the administration to undertake a heightened lobbying effort. Ratification in 2010 or shortly after Congress convenes next year might still be realistic, according to some.
"Politicians are perfectly capable of blaming each other while trying to find ways to win the fight," quipped one Senate source, saying the matter is now in the hands of top administration and legislative leaders.
"Maybe [Kyl has] closed the door, but we don't know if it's locked," Lewis told GSN yesterday. "If it's locked, you might want to try the side door. And if that doesn't work, take a battering ram to the damn door. Burn the house down, if you have to. Just don't roll over."
This article originally appeared in Global Security Newswire, which is produced by National Journal Group under a contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an advocacy group that highlights the threats of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
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