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."