GOP to Obama: START treaty still far from votes needed for ratification

Senate Republicans are warning the Obama administration that it still has work to do to ensure a successful ratification vote on the START treaty in a lame-duck session after the November elections.

GOP senators left the capital on Wednesday and Thursday repeatedly stating that the 14-4 bipartisan vote by the Foreign Relations Committee this month was no guarantee that the full Senate will follow suit.

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Democratic leaders are eyeing a floor vote on the treaty sometime after Nov. 15, when the chamber convenes for a few weeks before adjourning for the Christmas holiday. But several other priorities are jockeying for space on the agenda, such as a showdown vote on extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts pushed through by the George W. Bush administration. That leaves a short window for action on the controversial treaty signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Europe this spring.

The treaty aims to reduce missiles, warheads and launchers in both countries and would replace a previous agreement that expired in December.
 But ratification will require 67 votes by the Senate — the House does not vote on treaties — and Republicans have been vocal critics of the treaty for months, led by GOP Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.).

Criticism has mostly centered around fears that the treaty endangers the U.S. by not taking strong enough steps to “modernize” the country’s existing arsenal of missiles. Produced and maintained with outdated technology, current missiles are too vulnerable to malfunction, Republicans claim.

“Things depend entirely on the administration’s commitment to nuclear modernization,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.). “There are a number of us on the Republican side, led by Sen. Kyl, who want to make sure that we continue this path to make sure our nuclear weapon force is up to date.

"What we’ve seen, and the facilities that we have today, is really very appalling. It’s like building a Corvette in a Model T plant. So we’re withholding judgment.”

Kyl himself was tight-lipped when asked about the treaty on Wednesday, simply saying he didn’t know how he would vote on it.

Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.), who has held months’ worth of hearings on the treaty, hedged last week when asked for a vote prediction but said he was optimistic that White House officials will persuade enough Republicans.

Lugar, the panel’s ranking Republican, was also optimistic.

“I think we’ll have a debate and ratify the treaty during this calendar year,” he said. “But I would be completely off-base on trying to predict the final vote.”

Besides Lugar, other leading Republicans said they still need convincing.

“Modernization is a significant issue,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee. “They’ve got to satisfy those concerns.”

There is some Republican support — Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee, Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Lugar voted for the treaty in this month’s committee vote, as did all of the panel’s Democratic members.

Isakson said many Republicans will follow the lead of Lugar, who has spent years on the committee and is well-respected by the GOP caucus. But Isakson also said the administration will have to follow through on its pledge to assure Republicans that the country’s missile arsenal is safe.

“The administration is going to have to live up to the commitment they made to us," Isakson said. “I think they will.”

Corker also told The Hill his committee vote is no indication of his vote when the treaty comes up for a floor vote.

“I still have questions, and I still want them answered,” Corker said. “We’ll see, but I’m still undecided for now.”

But several Republicans said their opposition is final. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who voted against the treaty during the committee vote, said he did not believe the administration could present a convincing case for modernization.

“The treaty is built on a platform that assumes parity with Russia,” DeMint said. “It creates this impression that we’re going to be safer when in fact I think it makes the world more dangerous. It is also built on the assumption that we will continue this strategy of mutually assured destruction. I think it’s fundamentally flawed. I don’t think I’m ‘swing-able.’ ”