Latest New START--Where’s McCain?

by Robert Costa

Harry Reid said just now he could file for cloture on New START tonight.

Rumors have been flying on the Hill that if Reid goes for cloture today, McCain will oppose it, in a major blow to the push for ratification. McCain told me a few minutes ago, “I have certainly not made a decision.” On what happens if Reid rushes a cloture vote, he said only, “Let’s see what happens if he files today.”

A little earlier, outside the Senate chamber, Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) warned that if Reid files cloture today, opposition to the measure will “harden,” especially in Republican ranks.

“The way [Democrats] have played this agenda the last few days, trying to jam the treaty, has made people who might otherwise be inclined to support it become inclined to not support it,” Thune told me.

UPDATE: 4:20 p.m.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) cautions, in an interview with NRO, that Senate Democrats believe they are “very close” to getting the nine GOP votes they need on New START. “(Reid) wants to get this over with,” he says. Hatch spoke with Vice President Biden last night, and the veep sounded optimistic about the whip count. “He thinks he has the votes.”

Will McCain vote against the treaty if cloture is rushed? “I think that’s probably right,” Hatch says. “My advice is that (Democrats) shouldn’t push it too hard if they want to get the votes.”

Sen. Bob Bennett, Hatch’s Utah colleague, adds that if Reid files cloture, he probably has the numbers. Bennett observes that Reid pulled the omnibus because he saw his votes disappearing, and “wouldn’t bring this to the floor unless he thought he had the votes.”

On the amendment front, Senate Democrats defeated the Risch amendment on tactical nuclear weapons this afternoon by a 60-32 vote. During the floor debate, START proponent Sen. Richard Lugar (R., Ind.) argued that the amendment “would, in essence, terminate the treaty.”

UPDATE: 7:00 p.m.

Laura Rozen reports:

A spokesperson for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) denied Sunday that he is negotiating an amendment to the resolution of ratification to the new START treaty.

“McCain is not negotiating,” spokesperson Brooke Buchanan said.

POLITICO reported Sunday that aides to McCain were discussing a possible amendment to the resolution of ratification that would address GOP concerns that the U.S.-Russian arms control pact not limit U.S. missile defenses.

An amendment to the resolution of ratification is politically binding on the president and legally binding domestically, but would not require a renegotiation of the treaty with the Russians.

“We’ve had discussions with McCain people on the resolution on ratification,” Mark Helmke, spokesman for Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), told POLITICO on Sunday. “We’ve told people all along, if you’ve got better ideas for how to write declarations, we’re open for it.”

Helmke said that Lugar had already rewritten the resolution on ratification to strengthen its verification and missile-defense language to try to address GOP concerns, and was willing to hear other ideas.

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