WASHINGTON -- The White House yesterday succeeded in advancing the New START agreement toward Senate ratification, with one lawmaker shy of a two-thirds majority voting to begin floor debate on the matter (see GSN, Dec. 15).
President Obama has called the U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control treaty his top foreign affairs priority for the current lame-duck session of Congress and, if approved, it could become a noteworthy accomplishment of his administration.
Sixty-six senators favored final consideration of the nuclear arms control treaty, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April. The procedural move -- which required the backing of just 50 senators to pass -- won the support of nine Republicans. That is the minimum number of GOP lawmakers ultimately needed this year to approve the pact.
While some of those who yesterday favored initiating debate could decide later to oppose treaty ratification, the first tally could be an early indication that New START supporters have secured enough backing for approval of the accord. Substantive debate begins today and a ratification vote could occur as early as this weekend.
All 57 Democratic senators who were present in the chamber voted in favor of debate; one treaty supporter, Senator Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), was absent.
"I am confident that we have the votes to pass" ratification of the agreement, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said on MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow Show" last night. "I'm also encouraged by that [Wednesday] vote. ... We had a couple of votes missing, incidentally, so we would have been over 67."
Behind the scenes, though, Capitol Hill aides said political "wheeling and dealing" continued this week to ensure the votes would be there to allow the pact to be implemented.
With the minority party having gained additional Senate seats in last month's elections, ratification would require all of the chamber's Democrats plus 14 Republicans after the new Congress convenes in January. Keenly aware of the numbers, the White House and Democratic lawmakers have advocated ratification before the end of the year.
A number of GOP lawmakers have pushed back, insisting that not all of their concerns have been aired and arguing that newly elected senators should have the opportunity early next year to review and vote on the agreement.
Republican senators supporting the White House on the procedural vote bucked a much larger contingent in their caucus opposed to bringing the treaty to the floor.
Led by Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) -- the party whip who has represented Republicans in New START political talks with the White House -- yesterday's 32-member opposition bloc included two GOP lawmakers who voted in favor of the accord in committee, Senators Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.).
Senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who last week told MSNBC he was "leaning towards supporting" the agreement, also stood with Kyl this week in attempting to forestall debate.
Still, New START critics would have to hold off any defectors and even grow a bit if they are to prevent ratification before year's end.
A cloture vote that would allow the arms treaty to proceed to an up-or-down ratification tally requires the support of just 60 senators, which New START supporters on Capitol Hill are confident they now have firmly in hand. Whether the full 67 votes needed for ratification are sewn up is much less clear.
"I don't think the votes [for ratification] are there," one Senate aide said a day before the move to begin debate was taken. "We're teetering on the edge."
This congressional source and others interviewed for this article requested anonymity so that they could discuss the sensitive topic with greater candor and detail.
On Tuesday, Kyl challenged the White House to lock in enough Republican votes to ratify the compact this year without his support, which the White House for months has seen as crucial for delivering strong bipartisan backing for the agreement.
Capitol Hill aides anticipate that opponents will file so-called "killer amendments" that, if passed, could require parts of the treaty to be renegotiated before entering into force.
The Senate Republican Policy Committee, though, circulated a memo on Capitol Hill yesterday urging party members to reject the notion that such amendments are, in fact, killers. A floor measure seeking to alter treaty language on such matters as verification or missile defense would "merely require Russian consent to the amendment," not a full renegotiation, said the missive, obtained by Global Security Newswire.
Republican skeptics have argued that nonbinding preamble language in the pact could constrain U.S. missile defense efforts and questioned whether the treaty's verification measures are adequate to ensure Russian compliance.
What Democrats call "killer amendments" are any measures "seeking to remedy an issue with the treaty the Russians steamrolled us on during the negotiation process but which New START proponents do not wish to adopt because protecting American interests will annoy the Russians and perhaps jeopardize entry into force of the treaty," wrote Michael Stransky of the GOP policy organization.
Treaty proponents counter that the agreement would have no effect on the nation's antimissile operations and that at this moment there are no data exchanges or onsite verification of Russia's nuclear arsenal at all.
Meanwhile, Kyl said on Tuesday that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) might have "predicted something prematurely" in voicing confidence this week he had the votes to pass New START, which is to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
Even if 60 senators support a cloture vote to proceed to a final ratification tally, "you're playing Russian roulette here because really there's only one vote that counts, and that's final passage," said Kyl, suggesting that Reid might not know for certain if he had a full 67-vote majority until the final vote is taken.
Amid speculation that Senate Democrats might opt to delay the vote until next year rather than risk defeat, Kerry told reporters that Vice President Joseph Biden wants to see ratification considered this year, no matter the outcome.
"He said: 'Look, if we have a chance of losing this now, next year it looks like there's even a greater chance that that would happen; we'd rather lose it now with this crowd that's done the work on it, than go back and start from scratch,'" Kerry said yesterday.
At a press conference in the Capitol yesterday just minutes after the vote to move the treaty forward, Kyl and 11 other Senate Republicans argued that the legislative process is being rushed.
"I have to ask: Why can't we wait until the next Congress?" said Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). "Isn't that the morally upright thing to do, since we've had a lot of people who have been elected who really ought to be the ones who represent the people, having won elections?"
Like Hatch, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said he is inclined to support the treaty, but not amid a rush to pass a number of major bills at the end of a legislative session that saw few other accomplishments. In addition to New START, the White House wants Congress to approve a package to extend tax cuts, an omnibus spending measure to keep the government running, an immigration-reform "Dream Act," and an initiative to lift the military ban on gay service members.
"There's been plenty of time to do these issues," Alexander said. "Yet we have a lame-duck session where the majority seems to be insisting on an encore where there were boos for the concert, and they're bringing in every single issue they can think of."
Speaking before the same television news cameras minutes later, Kerry said Kyl and other Republican fence-sitters had repeatedly demanded delays in bringing New START to the Senate floor over the past several months, only to assert now at the session's 11th hour that it is too late.
"I would ask them in good conscience to ask themselves why we are here at this late hour," said Kerry, flanked by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the chamber's Select Committee on Intelligence.
Kyl and his supporters asked Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) -- who for several months was the lone Senate Republican advocating the treaty -- to "delay the process" pending the Arizona senator's negotiations with the White House over proposed funding increases for the nuclear weapons complex, Kerry said.
The administration last month agreed to spend more than $85 billion over the next decade to modernize the nuclear arsenal and the facilities needed to maintain warheads (see GSN, Nov. 15). White House officials have since griped that despite agreeing on a funding package for the nuclear complex, Kyl has remained mum about whether he would support New START on its merits (see GSN, Nov. 22 and Nov. 19).
Delays in bringing the treaty to the Senate floor began over the summer, when Republicans requested more time to review the agreement text, the hearing record and administration responses to hundreds of lawmaker questions, said Kerry. He granted an additional six weeks, including the August recess, before taking a committee vote.
The panel ultimately passed a resolution to send the accord to the full Senate in a 14-4 vote that included backing from three Republicans (see GSN, Sept. 17).
The committee chairman said yesterday he acceded to another delay -- this time in the Senate floor vote -- when Republicans warned that the election campaign season could make GOP support for New START more difficult.
"The people here who say [today] we're rushing something made the request [in the fall] to delay again, saying, 'Please don't do this before the election, because if you do, you're going to politicize it,'" Kerry told reporters. "So we didn't do it before the election, out of complete comity and deference to their requests to give them time."
After Election Day, a newly emboldened Republican Party -- fresh from winning a historic shift in House leadership -- began calling for delay in the New START vote until next year, a proposal the Massachusetts Democrat dismissed.
"This is the time," Kerry said. "This is the time and this is the moment when the United States Senate needs to stand up and be counted on an issue of national security for our country."
Although Kyl is the Republican point man on New START, he was not ready yesterday to say how he would vote if the pact goes to a vote this month.
"I haven't tried, up to now, to convince anybody to vote for or against the treaty," he told reporters. "So all the time that the administration has been lobbying very hard, I have not. Rather, I've been trying to work constructively to improve it."
Last Friday, Maine's two Republican senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, announced they would both support New START ratification. They were joined yesterday by Lugar and six other GOP senators in voting to allow Senate floor debate on the agreement to commence: Robert Bennett (Utah); Scott Brown (Mass.); Lindsey Graham (S.C.); John McCain (Ariz.); Lisa Murkowski (Alaska); and George Voinovich (Ohio).
Under New START, Washington and Moscow agree to cap their deployed nuclear warheads at 1,550, and limit their strategic nuclear delivery vehicles -- such as bomber aircraft, ICBMs and submarine-launched missiles -- to 700. Each side also can keep another 100 delivery platforms in reserve.
In the end, the political linkage between the modest gains the treaty makes in nuclear arms reductions -- down from a 2,200-warhead cap mandated under an earlier agreement -- and additional dollars for updating the remaining arsenal has the potential to draw in votes from both sides of the aisle.
Obama administration officials say they intend to request the nuclear complex budget increases regardless of whether New START is ratified. However, because of heightened pressures on both parties to rein in federal spending, the House and Senate Appropriations committees might not approve the funding boosts beginning next year (see GSN, Dec. 9).
Democrats would have a particular incentive to reduce nuclear-complex funds if Republicans kill the treaty, according to Capitol Hill aides.
Denying Obama a U.S.-Russian arms control treaty success that no other Democratic president has been able to achieve might be politically tempting for many Senate Republicans. At the same time, it could reverse Kyl's hard-fought successes in augmenting funds to keep the U.S. nuclear arsenal viable, said one congressional staffer.
"Now we've come to a point where these all intersect," the senior GOP aide said yesterday. "Failure to act on New START puts at risk strategic stability and the future of our stockpile."
Addressing Democratic calls to keep the Senate in session through Christmas, if need be, to debate and vote on a ratification resolution, Kyl said on Tuesday such a move would be an affront to those wishing to celebrate the holiday.
"It is impossible to do all of the things that the majority leader laid out ... without disrespecting one of the two holiest of holidays for Christians and the families of all of the Senate, not just the senators themselves but all of the staff," the Senate's No. 2 Republican told reporters at a Capitol Hill "stakeout."
Kerry yesterday rejected that thinking.
"We should be willing to stay here, folks, until we get the job done," he said. "We have 100,000 troops in harm's way in Afghanistan and 50,000 troops in harm's way in Iraq. They don't get a break for Christmas. They don't take New Year's off."
Senators "can't ask any less of ourselves as we sit in a warm chamber and talk about this treaty," the committee chairman said. "I don't understand why an agreement that reduces our nuclear [stockpile] down to 1,550 warheads can't be done in the next few days in the interests of the security of our country."
Meanwhile, Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) -- who is believed to have influenced Kyl's decision to delay a treaty ratification vote -- lost a bid to demand that the text of both the arms agreement and an omnibus spending federal package be read aloud in the Senate chamber. The action had the potential to delay debate on the legislation for many days.
His attempted maneuver drew a prompt and angry response from the Obama administration.
"This is a new low in putting political stunts ahead of our national security, and it is exactly the kind of Washington game-playing that the American people are sick of," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a written statement released early yesterday afternoon. "It is the height of hypocrisy to complain that there is not enough time to consider this treaty, while wasting so much time reading aloud a document that was submitted to the Senate months ago."
DeMint was overruled by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who agreed with Reid to commence the substantive floor debate today.
Kerry urged lawmakers of all stripes to take a deep breath.
"Look, I understand the emotions and the currents of this place better, certainly, than I did a number of years ago," he said. "Let's see how people feel tomorrow and how they feel the day after tomorrow, after people have had a chance to really step back and digest what is appropriate and what isn't."