New START for Christmas
Obama needs at least nine Republicans to make his holiday wish come true.


Robert Costa

First he brokered a deal on tax cuts. Now President Obama is looking to do the same on New START, the nuclear-arms pact with Russia that sits atop his lame-duck congressional agenda. With the clock ticking in Congress, Obama’s options are limited, but by no means exhausted.

Senate Republicans, for their part, are demanding that Bush-era tax rates be extended before any further legislation is considered. But with the Obama-McConnell tax compromise gaining steam, that debate could be wrapped up, in the upper chamber at least, by later this week.

Once the Senate’s tax legislating is complete (and a spending bill to keep the government running has been passed), there is potential for START to be considered before the holidays. But ratifying the treaty is no easy task: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) needs 67 votes — 58 Democrats (should they hold), plus nine Republicans.

Cobbling together those votes, and fast, will be Reid’s challenge. Members from both parties have expressed skepticism about whether a late-December debate makes sense. Sen. Ben Nelson (D., Neb.) recently told National Review Online that he’d be comfortable with holding off debate until next year.

“Most of the (legislation) being dealt with right now should be held over until 2011, because we should be focused on jobs, taxes, and debt reduction,” Nelson said. “I think we can hold off on START; I don’t want it to crowd out taxes, debt reduction, and jobs.” Nelson’s position, however, is not universally shared — most Democrats are expected to back the treaty.

The real development is on the GOP front, where there appears to be growing momentum to bring treaty to the floor after the tax deal. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued Friday that the lame-duck schedule, though cramped, does leave room for a START debate.

“I still hope we will be able to bring this up next week, and a lot of work is being done to that effect,” McCain said in a speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “My colleague, Sen. Jon Kyl, is doing a tremendous job working with the administration to resolve the issues associated with nuclear modernization. I’ve been focusing my efforts on addressing the key concerns relating to missile defense. And I think we are very close.”

Over the weekend, it was rumored that McCain and his maverick wingman, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, were working on a deal with the White House to put off consideration of repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in exchange for their active support of ratifying New START.  

Beyond McCain, the White House’s hopes were lifted again late last week when two moderate Republicans, Sen. Olympia Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins, both of Maine, offered their backing.