Lugar: Fallout from election could derail vote on START treaty

A leading Republican advocate for a new U.S.-Russia arms control treaty says the Senate may not ratify the agreement during the lame-duck session if the GOP makes significant gains in next week’s elections.

Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, ranking member of the chamber’s Foreign Relations Committee, indicated in remarks Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations that the outcome of the midterm elections could threaten the treaty’s chances for ratification this year. 

“I have no idea what the results of the election will be, but in the event that there are very substantial changes and many of them on the Republican side, some will say, ‘This [treaty] is something that we really haven’t had a chance to get into and study, and we want more time,’ ” Lugar said.

“Whether this will be a prime interest and focal point, I’m just doubtful, given the time frame we’re in right now. … There is an argument that I’m sure will ensue — ‘Why are we still sitting here?’ About one-fifth of us are going to be replaced, and if you have had an unfortunate election experience, you might not want to sit around. … It may be that we will not have a vote at all.”

The GOP’s chances of winning back the Senate are considered slim, but Republicans are likely to pick up several seats and reduce the Democratic majority. Support from two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 votes, is needed to ratify a treaty. 

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the U.S.-Russia treaty on a bipartisan vote in October. Democratic leaders had been hoping to bring the treaty to the Senate floor sometime after members reconvene on Nov. 15. 

Lugar’s vocal support for the treaty is critical to hopes of persuading at least eight Republicans to cross the aisle and vote for it. The 24-year incumbent is a well-respected voice on foreign affairs.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been pressing the Senate to ratify the treaty during the lame-duck session. Obama administration officials have been working the phones to make the case that the Senate should ratify the treaty in the coming weeks.

Rose Gottemoeller, assistant secretary of State for arms control, verification and compliance, said Tuesday that administration officials have been working "steadily" to ensure that lawmakers and the interested congressional staff members receive all the necessary information on the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

Gottemoeller, the chief negotiator on the treaty, said that the "general feeling" regarding the Senate's ratification of the treaty is "positive" and that administration officials have been able to satisfy the senators' questions about the treaty. She indicated that the bipartisan backing for the treaty in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is a "good sign" that the administration is receiving support on both sides of the aisle.

Gottemoeller noted there have been 18 congressional hearings and more than 900 questions answered on the treaty.

“We have indeed been spending a lot of time on due diligence for our Senate colleagues,” she said. “They have an important responsibility giving their advice and consent to this treaty. … We’re going to continue through this period, after the midterm elections when the Senate comes back, to continue to provide all the information that the Senate — both the members and the Senate staff — need in order to understand how strongly this treaty deserves to be ratified and entered into force.”

The treaty signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Europe this spring would reduce missiles, warheads and launchers in both countries and would replace a previous agreement that expired in December.

But Republicans, led by GOP Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), have criticized the treaty. That criticism has mostly centered on fears that the treaty endangers the U.S. by not taking strong enough steps to “modernize” the country’s existing arsenal of missiles.

Asked why so many Senate Republicans are opposed to the treaty, Lugar said many current GOP senators are relatively new and haven’t served in the Senate during past debates over treaties. He also said there is a general sense that the treaty is not a priority, noting that the issue has barely surfaced during the congressional races.

Lugar also said the administration has “tried very hard” to assure Kyl and other top Senate Republicans that modernization issues are being addressed, but that he is unaware if the efforts have been successful.

Lugar said he has already made the case to Kyl and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) about the treaty, but that he won’t bring up the issue until the Senate comes back mid-November.

“I am not attempting to gain specific commitments from other Republicans,” Lugar said. “When we return, we’ll have more conversations. … I’m hopeful that many members of the Republican Party will vote ‘Aye,’ but the facts are that we’ve not come to that point yet.”