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.