Will McCain Support New START?

White House hopes of securing New START ratification during the 111th Congress may ultimately rest with Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential opponent. Yesterday afternoon, John McCain joined 65 other senators — including eight other Senate Republicans — in voting to proceed with debate on the treaty. Two senators did not vote, but one of them (Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh) favors lame-duck ratification. Thus, if the 66 senators who endorsed the procedural motion also lend their support to the nuclear deal itself, Obama will have the 67 votes he needs. (However, it now seems that Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, who is undergoing prostate-cancer surgery on Monday, may not be available for a lame-duck vote.)

Of course, voting to open debate is not the same thing as voting to ratify. Likewise, opposing lame-duck consideration of the treaty is different from opposing the treaty altogether. Just ask Tennessee Republican Bob Corker. “I don’t agree with the decision to debate a nuclear-arms treaty at the end of a lame-duck session in the midst of considering an omnibus appropriations bill,” Corker declared in a statement following yesterday’s vote. “But now that we are on the bill there are T’s that need to be crossed and I’s that need to be dotted as it pertains to modernization and there are a large number of amendments that need to be considered and voted on. Though I remain doubtful all these things will occur in a thoughtful way this session, if all these issues are resolved, if there is a full and open debate on the treaty and if the resolution of ratification isn’t weakened in the process, it is still my plan to support the treaty.”

For his part, McCain has expressed significant misgivings about New START, echoing those of his fellow Arizona senator, Republican Jon Kyl, who has pushed for delaying final consideration until early 2011. But McCain is also under tremendous pressure — from the White House, other senators, even his own staff — to help the treaty gain Senate approval in the lame duck. So which way is he leaning?

New York Times correspondent Peter Baker says that McCain “has gently broken” with Kyl. But as Hill reporter Jordan Fabian notes, McCain appeared yesterday on Fred Thompson’s radio program and “said it would be a ‘good idea’ to wait until January to debate and pass” the treaty, adding that he still harbored “serious concerns about the missile-defense part of it.” Fabian also points out that McCain has “backed Kyl’s plan to bring up the pact the week of Jan. 24 and debate it for a week before holding a ratification vote.”

Today, during a floor speech on the imprisonment of Russian businessmen Mikhail Khordokovsky and Platon Lebedev, McCain said that while New START “should be considered on its merits to our national security . . . it is only reasonable to ask: If Russian officials demonstrate such a blatant disregard for the rights and legal obligations owed to one of their own citizens, how will they treat us — and the legal obligations, be it this treaty or any other, that they owe to us?” He promised to submit amendments in the days ahead.

Which brings us to Tuesday’s ruling by the Senate parliamentarian, who concluded that the New START preamble could indeed be amended. Why does that matter? As Foreign Policy blogger Josh Rogin explains, “Treaty supporters object to amending the preamble, because any changes would force the treaty to go back to bilateral negotiations with the Russians, which could take months and possibly even scuttle New START entirely.” Republican critics have argued that the preamble text would hamper U.S. missile-defense efforts, a problem they hope to rectify during the amendment process.

Look for McCain to play a key role in that process, and in determining whether New START wins ratification before the 111th Congress adjourns. Right now, says a GOP Hill lobbyist who has monitored the debate closely, “I don’t think anyone knows what the hell is going to happen.”

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