Politics & Policy

New START for Christmas

Obama needs at least nine Republicans to make his holiday wish come true.

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.

#ad#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.

#page#Sen. Judd Gregg (R., N.H.), Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.), Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) and Sen. Bob Bennett (R., Utah) have also made their general support of ratification known, on television or via votes on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. According to the Wall Street Journal, these murmurs and additions have led White House officials to believe that they have the 67 votes needed.

#ad#Most Republicans, though, remain opposed. Sen. Richard Burr (R., N.C.) announced Friday that he would not support ratification. “I fear it will have a negative impact on our national security, and the United States must be assured that any arms treaty it agrees to will not limit our ability to defend against growing international threats,” he said in a statement. Many leading 2012 GOP presidential contenders, as documented by National Review Online, are also opposed to ratification.

David Axelrod, a senior White House adviser, said Sunday that despite GOP concerns, the president will continue to push for ratification by the end of the year, calling the treaty a “critical piece” of U.S. foreign policy. “We have to get it done,” he said. “We can’t delay that.”

President Obama, in an interview with National Public Radio, relayed a similar message. “The START treaty is something that I absolutely think has to get done before Congress leaves for Christmas vacation,” the president said Thursday. “It needs to get done. We’re going to keep on working the numbers. And hopefully, we’re going to be able to get it done.”

Despite pressure from Pennsylvania Avenue, Senator Kyl tells NRO that a full START debate remains unlikely in the lame-duck session. He is viewed as the single most influential Republican on the treaty, although it’s not clear that he’ll be able to hold the Republican swing votes.

Dick Lugar (R., Ind.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is very supportive of the treaty and hopeful it will pass. He tells NRO that the path toward a debate is “reasonably clear,” especially if the Senate can wrap up its tax-cut proceedings.

“I thought that’s what out agreement was,” Lugar said. “Do the tax thing, do the (continuing resolution) and omnibus, then START.  Now, already, some are saying that it is not time for START after all. That is very disturbing to me.”

Public opinion about the treaty remains mixed. A new Gallup poll says that 51 percent of Americans support ratification, with 30 percent opposed and 19 percent undecided.

Regardless of whether ratification comes this month, the state of U.S.-Russia relations will continue be a hot topic in Washington. McCain, at Johns Hopkins, urged his colleagues to look beyond START in coming months.

“Just look at the New START treaty,” McCain said. “It is a modest accomplishment, but it has been so overhyped that you would think it is the administration’s most important foreign-policy success to date — and that its ultimate ratification would be so consequential as to tip the balance of power within the Kremlin to America’s favor.

“What we need most now is a greater sense of realism about Russia — about the recent history of our relationship, about the substantial limitations on Russian power, about the divergences in U.S. and Russian interests, and about the lack of shared values between our governments. We don’t need WikiLeaks to reach these conclusions, my friends. They have been staring us in the face for a very long time.”

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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