Updated at 7:46 a.m. on December 21.
As senators emerged Monday from a three-hour classified session on the New START treaty, Democrats appeared to be inching closer to the 67 votes necessary to approve the arms-reduction accord with Russia by Thursday.
While approval is by no means assured, Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., on Monday joined the ranks of GOP senators who will vote in favor of the accord, bringing treaty supporters to within a few votes of the requisite two-thirds majority for ratification. And Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a key Republican negotiator on the treaty, signaled he expects to vote for ratification, saying he is in the same place now as when he voted for it in the Foreign Relations Committee in September.
Meanwhile, Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., who said he has not decided how he will vote, shopped around an amendment to the resolution of ratification that could push more fence-sitting Republicans into the “yes” column.
The amendment addresses GOP concerns that the pact could hamstring U.S. missile defense efforts, and it does not tweak treaty language, so its passage would not force the United States to renegotiate the accord with Russia.
Besides McCain, other sponsors of the amendment include undecided Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and treaty opponents Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
When asked whether he would support the treaty if the amendment passes, McCain said, “It would be helpful.” Kirk was equally evasive, saying, “I’d really like to see that amendment pass.”
Arms-control advocates were optimistic that the amendment could pacify undecided senators and could be the key to getting the 67 votes needed for the treaty’s approval.
“I think it [the amendment] might be the deal that seals approval of the treaty,” said John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World. “We’re almost there, but I don’t count my treaties before they hatch.”
To get to 67 votes, nine Republicans must join the entire Democratic caucus in voting to approve the treaty. Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Richard Lugar, R-Ind., is the most ardent Republican supporter of the treaty, with GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Sens. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., George Voinovich, R-Ohio, seen as likely supporters.
Brown, who had not previously announced his position, said after the Monday meeting he would support the treaty. “It's a good move forward to deal with our national security issues,” he said.
Aside from McCain and Kirk, the group of Republicans whose votes may be in play includes Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, and Robert Bennett of Utah. Bennett has said he is inclined to back the treaty but would consult with the GOP leadership.
“The White House believes that before Congress leaves town, the Senate will ratify the New START treaty,” press secretary Robert Gibbs said at a White House briefing.
Murkowski said Obama called her last week to discuss the treaty. The president did not make a “hard sell”, but told her that administration arms-control experts were available to answer any questions she had. Murkowksi said she also talked about START with Kyl, the No. 2 Republican, who is whipping against ratification during the lame duck.
As Kyl made his pitch against the treaty to Murkowski and other GOP senators, the Obama administration has stepped up its lobbying efforts in recent days. Gibbs said Obama was burning up the phone lines, calling fence-sitting Republicans to get on board.
The Senate will hold a procedural vote to cut off debate on Tuesday, which requires a 60-vote threshold. That will pave the way for a vote on the treaty itself by Thursday.
Voting on the treaty before Thursday would require a unanimous consent agreement. GOP aides said that a final vote might be put off until Thursday if Kyl needs the time to line up "no" votes.
As the lobbying efforts for and against the treaty intensified Monday, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen weighed in, saying in a letter to Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., that the treaty has the full support of the uniformed military.
“I continue to believe that the ratification of the New START treaty is vital to U.S. national security,” Mullen wrote. “Through the trust it engenders, the cuts it requires, and the flexibility it preserves, this treaty enhances our ability to... protect and defend the citizens of the United States.”
Echoing a letter that Obama sent to senators on Saturday, Mullen stressed that the treaty would not hamstring U.S. missile-defense efforts -- a key concern of many Republicans. “The Joint Chiefs and I are confident that the treaty does not in any way constrain our ability to pursue robust missile defenses,” he wrote.
Mullen also addressed GOP concerns about long-term funding for nuclear-modernization efforts, saying that the administration’s $85 billion commitment to the enterprise over the next decade “attests to the importance being placed on nuclear deterrence and the investments required to sustain it -- especially given the country’s present fiscal challenges.”
Kerry played up Mullen’s letter, saying that it “should remind every one of us that this treaty is vital to our national security and to reducing the risk of nuclear weapons.”
On Monday night, the Senate soundly defeated three Republican amendments, including one that would increase the limits on the number of deployed strategic delivery vehicles (intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers) from 700 to 720, and another that would significantly increase the number of inspections at nuclear facilities.