Lugar optimistic he can rally GOP to back U.S.-Russia arms treaty

Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), the only Senate Republican to publicly endorse a U.S.-Russia arms treaty, said this week he is optimistic the upper chamber will approve it this year.

The ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee told The Hill this week he believes he can persuade enough GOP votes to ratify the treaty “eventually.” And despite Congress’s crowded and closing legislative calendar, Lugar disputes the notion that the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is on the ropes.

ADVERTISEMENT
“I don’t see that it’s in particular trouble,” Lugar said. “The problem is in how many days we’ll be in session and the priority of scheduling. But I believe [Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John] Kerry [D-Mass.] and I are headed toward a markup in our committee in about two weeks, and if that’s successful then it becomes a matter of Majority Leader Harry] Reid’s [D-Nev.] priorities and if he’s prepared to put it on the floor.”

Kerry spokesman Frederick Jones said that “discussions are ongoing, and as of now, no final decision has been made on the timing of a markup in the Foreign Relations Committee. Ultimately, the goal is to build consensus for the timely ratification of this vital treaty.”

With 67 votes necessary for ratification, eight Republicans will need to support it, assuming all 59 senators who caucus with Democrats back it.

Lugar, a well respected member of the Senate who has served 31 years on the committee, said some Republicans are reticent to back START.

He said, “A number of them, who will remain nameless, want to vote for the treaty but still want these questions resolved. So there’s a lot of talking going on.”

When former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post this month calling the treaty “Obama’s worst foreign policy mistake,” Lugar fired back almost immediately.

In a lengthy statement, Lugar blasted Romney’s opinion as “hyperbolic” and “unaware,” and that it “repeats discredited objections and “distorts” or “ignores” several facts surrounding the treaty.

The previous START treaty between the U.S. and Russia expired in December 2009, and President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed the new START treaty this spring. Obama has been pushing hard for swift Senate ratification of the pact, which would reduce missiles, launchers and warheads in both countries.

Kerry has held 12 hearings on the treaty, with a number of prominent Republican former Cabinet members testifying in support of it — former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, former National Security Advisors Brent Scowcroft and Stephen Hadley and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. This month, former Secretary of State George Schultz and former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) also both submitted letters in support of the treaty.

Kerry — who met with Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday about the treaty — said, “There are a number of Republicans who are legitimately asking some questions. We need to get some questions answered for the record and some other things done. If we can do that, I’m hopeful we can get a whole lot of people to vote for it.”

Most Republicans oppose the treaty out of concern that it weakens U.S. defenses, adding that the country’s missile system needs to be modernized.

The treaty’s top skeptic continues to be House Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), who voted for the 2003 treaty but says he still has unanswered questions about the new version.

Told of Lugar’s optimism and the prominent GOP names that have testified in favor of the treaty, Kyl noted that some Republicans on the committee have been pushing Kerry to allow testimony from Republicans who oppose the treaty.

“Some of the Republicans who have testified are revered, long-ago former public officials,” he said. “I’m not going to suggest how Republicans may eventually vote on the treaty because I’m not sure I know how I’m going to vote. It’s quite possible some would vote for it and some would vote against it.

“I’m in the same position I’ve been in from the beginning: There’s a lot of things that are going to have to happen in order for this treaty to be considered, and we’re a long way from that. Unfortunately, those things take time.”

Time is perhaps Kerry’s biggest enemy. He and Reid have pushed discussion of a climate-change bill into September, when the chamber will already be stressed to finish appropriations bills before the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, and the looming elections will make anything controversial nearly impossible to pass.

One possibility would be taking up the treaty in a post-election lame-duck session.

Another possibility would be for Lugar to lobby the Republicans who supported the last START treaty, in 2003 during the Bush administration. Of the 48 GOP senators who voted for that treaty, 27 are still in the Senate. That list includes both Lugar and Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), who was a Republican at the time but switched parties in 2009.

Ideally, Kerry wants more than one Republican vote on the committee for the treaty. Speculation has fallen most on Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, both of whom told The Hill they are skeptical but potential yes votes. Both senators’ offices on Thursday said they are still undecided.

Kerry told The Hill that for now, he is still hopeful for ratification before the elections, given the tensions with Iran and the need to send a message to foreign powers.

“What makes me push to get it done before November is the Iranian situation, the U.N. meeting in September and the need for the U.S. to show leadership on the non-proliferation treaty,” he said.