Lugar: 'Large majority' of Republicans will end up backing the START treaty

Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, predicted Friday that a "large majority" of members in his party will back a key nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia and that it will be ratified.

So far, Lugar (Ind.) has been the only Senate Republican to back the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which was negotiated in the spring but has yet to be ratified by the Senate. The Indiana Republican predicted the treaty will pass his committee in mid-September and will come up for a vote in the lame-duck session after the November elections.

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"In fairness to the Republicans in the Senate, I think a majority in fact do favor the treaty nominally and will eventually vote for the treaty," he said in an interview on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program that will air Sunday. If it is brought up, "a large number of Republicans will be in favor of the treaty, but not all of them," he said. 

President Obama has urged the Senate to ratify the treaty for months, but it has been stalled in the Senate due to Republican doubts over the agreement.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), a 2008 presidential candidate, penned a July Washington Post op-ed, in which he called the START "Obama's worst foreign policy mistake yet," arguing it would impede U.S. missile defense efforts and give the Russians too many concessions. Lugar at the time called his comments "hyperbolic."

The veteran senator acknowledged some in his party are using the ratification process to gain commitments from the Obama administration to modernize the country's existing nuclear facilities. He also said some in his party, going back years, "don't like the Russians, don't trust them, don't want to deal with them."

By rule, getting enough Republicans on board to ratify a treaty would be a heavier lift than passing legislation — it takes 67 senators to approve a treaty, meaning eight Republicans will need to vote for the treaty assuming all 59 Democrats do as well.

Lugar expressed "hope" that the treaty would not turn into a political football because it is likely to come up after the November midterm elections, which senators will not be feeling the pressures of the campaign trail.

"I think a large majority of Republicans agree with me" on arms reduction, he said. "But I'm hopeful, to get to your point, that we will not get into a political situation in which Republicans say 'well this is a treaty that President Obama and his folks negotiated, ipso facto, it must not be a very good treaty.' That would be very unfortunate. But I think we will not deal with the treaty on the floor until after the election."

It is not guaranteed that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will bring the START to the floor during the lame-duck session, but Lugar predicted it would happen while stopping short of saying it will pass by the end of the year.

"No I'm not predicting anything" when asked if it will pass by the end of this year, "beyond the fact that I think we will get to the floor and we'll have a chance to vote upon it, debate it in the lame-duck session."

Lugar said that "for the moment, this is not a crucial situation" because the U.S. and Russia are still cooperating on arms reduction because of the understanding that the new treaty will pass. The old treaty expired in Dec. 2009. That could change, Lugar said, if the Russians begin to suspect the treaty won't be passed.