Washington — New START moved one step closer to ratification Tuesday, as the Senate voted 67–28 to end debate. A vote on final passage is expected Wednesday.
Eleven Republicans voted for cloture — Sens. Dick Lugar (Ind.), Bob Bennett (Utah), Scott Brown (Mass.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Susan Collins (Maine), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), and George Voinovich (Ohio).
Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pointed out at a press conference following the vote that three additional senators — Judd Gregg (R., N.H.), Evan Bayh (D., Ind.), and Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) — were absent on Tuesday but will be present for ratification, meaning at least 70 members are likely to back the measure.
“In today’s Senate, 70 votes is yesterday’s 95,” Kerry joked. A beaming Lugar, the ranking member of the committee, joined the Bay State Democrat, and hailed Tuesday’s vote as a bipartisan success. Lugar expects even more Republicans to support final passage.
The vote came despite opposition from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and other leading Republicans. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) remarked on Fox News radio earlier in the day that the increasingly inevitable ratification of New START in the lame-duck session amounted to a “capitulation . . . of dramatic proportions.”
“When it’s all going to be said and done, Harry Reid has eaten our lunch,” Graham said.
Kerry and Lugar dismissed the notion that McConnell’s opposition had been a political failure or strategically misguided. “Mitch McConnell is respected by [Democrats] as a very smart and capable leader [who has] held his caucus together on a number of difficult votes over the course of the year,” Kerry said. “I think he was just announcing his opposition to the treaty. So I wouldn’t read anything larger into it.”
Lugar was asked if McConnell had whipped the START vote. “Not to my knowledge,” he responded. “The vote today stands as it is.”
Sen. Bob Bennett, the retiring Utah Republican and a close friend of McConnell, told NRO that Republican leaders took a mostly hands-off approach to whipping START. “On a vote of this consequence, the leadership is very respectful of every senator’s individual position,” he said.
Other leading Republicans attempted to downplay the political aspects of the negotiations. Isakson, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told NRO that many of his colleagues worked to avoid making the START vote a political football.
“Before I was up for reelection in November, I faced the vote in committee [to approve New START],” Isakson recalled. “From a political standpoint, it would have been easy to just say no. But [supporting START] was the right thing to do. And I got almost 60 percent of the vote after having voted for it in the committee. The worst decision would have been to go back on what we’ve already done.”
Indeed, Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told NRO last week that the START vote will not be a “litmus test” for candidates in coming years. But high-profile conservatives like Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) and Sarah Palin are opposed. What does Isakson think of those voices? “I’m not taking that bait,” he chuckled.
Collins, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, told NRO that many on-the-fence GOP senators “just naturally came to a conclusion.”
“To me, as Brent Scowcroft told me, [New START] is a modest and useful step in the right direction,” Collins said. “It’s refreshing to see serious, bipartisan consideration of a very important issue. Dick Lugar gets a lot of credit for that, as does Jon Kyl on the other side.”
The clock was another factor. Sen. Richard Burr (R., N.C.) notes that many senators are itching to catch a flight home for the holidays. The move toward START, he said in an NRO interview, “has more than a bit to do with jet fumes.”
“[Senators] want to go home,” Burr said. “When you got a process that has a definitive end, you use slippage backward. That’s why all of these things were orchestrated to come up at this time of year.” Burr would have preferred to see the debate continue next session, since “there is no compelling reason that this needs to be done right now.”
Regardless, it will be done.