By J. Taylor Rushing - 07/02/10 10:00 AM EDT
A U.S.-Russia arms treaty is teetering in the Senate, lacking support from Republicans and set back by an alleged spy ring.
The White House was hoping that the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), signed three months ago by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, would move quickly through the Senate. But now it may not get a vote on the floor until after the November elections.
While a simple majority is enough to pass it through the panel, 67 votes will be needed for ratification by the full Senate. The House does not vote on treaties.
Given the partisanship of the upper chamber and the midterm elections four months away, there is little chance of securing the vote of every Senate Democrat and the backing of least eight Republicans anytime soon.
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) has only one Republican on board, Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), the ranking member on the panel. Lugar says he will help Kerry lobby wavering GOP senators this fall.
To bolster his case and win over reluctant Republicans, Kerry has been holding hearings this spring and summer, featuring support for the treaty from prominent GOP names like former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Stephen Hadley and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Kerry said the Senate has historically considered treaties above politics, and that past START pacts received overwhelming approval votes.
“This is a treaty that could do very well, and my hope is in the national security of our nation,” Kerry said. “Every day that goes by, we lose verification of what Russia’s doing. It really works against our national security not to have that treaty being ratified … We’re prepared to answer anybody’s questions, and we’ve had a diverse group of players at the hearings who all say it should be ratified. So my hope is that politics doesn’t get in the way, but around here these days that’s a toughie.”
Kerry’s task could get even harder after November, when Democrats are expected to lose seats.
This week’s arrest of 11 alleged Russian spies in the U.S. has made the passage of the treaty an even steeper uphill climb. According to court documents, two of the alleged Russian agents were asked by Moscow to collect information about the treaty.
Much of the push-and-pull in the Senate on START has centered on a struggle between Kerry and GOP Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), a skeptic of the treaty. Kyl has cited missle defense issues when expressing opposition to START.
Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the treaty “is not likely to come up before October” and perhaps not until after the election. He said there has been no Democratic whipping so far, but acknowledged the treaty will be a challenge to ratify.
“Kyl is leading the charge against it,” Durbin said.
If the treaty does not get approved this year, it would be a major setback for Obama, who has stressed the need to reduce arms while maintaining a strong U.S. defense.
Obama’s work on the arms treaty was cited as one of the reasons the president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.
The last START treaty ended in December, and although both countries have agreed to observe its terms, actual verification has ended. Proponents use that to bolster the case for ratification, as well as the damaging message that would be sent around the world by Senate failure to ratify the treaty.
Republicans seem to be following Kyl’s lead more than Lugar’s. The Senate GOP whip emphasizes that he has not ruled out voting for the treaty.
“We’ve just barely begun that process,” Kyl said. “There are a whole series of things that I’m going to be looking for to demonstrate the administration’s ability to begin carrying a robust modernization before I think it’s wise to take up the START treaty.”
Lugar called the treaty “critically important.” He also said the treaty was “modest” in the number of warheads it would reduce on both sides.
“Having spent 19 years of my life attempting to work with Russians to take warheads off missiles and destroy missiles, it’s critical to have American and Russian contractors working together eyeball to eyeball with boots on the ground,” Lugar said. “It was a real blow that we came to the end in December and there was no treaty. Now we have an opportunity to renew that and set the stage in our relations with Russia for a longer-term treaty.”
Kerry said the White House has been very supportive, with Vice President Joe Biden — Kerry’s predecessor as Foreign Relations chairman — taking a leading role along with others such as Gates.
Democrats also appear likely to have the support of their more conservative members, such as Evan Bayh of Indiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska; both say they are likely yes votes.
However, Nelson isn’t optimistic about the treaty’s chances, suggesting that Republicans seem more interested in politics than answering their concerns.
“Most of the criticism that’s being registered against it right now was — oddly enough — was not registered against previous treaties,” Nelson said. “Why? The conclusion is that it may not pass. If they’re using these arguments today to be against this treaty, and they didn’t raise them back then, and that’s going to be the basis for voting against it, there may not be enough votes.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said, “I’d like to be in a position to vote for it, but I’d like to be assured that we’re investing enough money in modernization.
“In a world in which there will be nuclear weapons for a good long time, Sen. Kyl and I want to make sure that the smaller number of weapons we’re left with in our stockpile work.”
To get rolling toward the eight GOP votes, Kerry is likely to reach out to two Republicans on his committee who say they are still undecided: Bob Corker of Tennessee and Johnny Isakson of Georgia.
“I’m very open,” Corker said. “There’s just still some issues on verification, on defense, but the biggest issue is just making sure we absolutely want to modernize our arsenal.”
“Ronald Reagan did the right thing when he started START I, but we’ve got to make sure we’re not doing anything that might hurt our strategic initiative on missile defense,” Isakson said.