Kerry says momentum building for START treaty vote in December

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the biggest congressional champion of the START arms-control treaty between the U.S. and Russia, said Wednesday that he expects a December vote on the agreement.

Conversations among Democratic leaders and with Republican critics have markedly increased in recent days in anticipation of a vote during the lame-duck session, Kerry said during a conference call from Israel. Kerry, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee and has been leading hearings on the treaty for much of this year, has been in the Mideast for the past six days meeting with state leaders.

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Kerry said on Wednesday alone he spoke with Sen. Dick Lugar (Ind.), the committee’s ranking Republican, as well as Vice President Joe Biden, and also swapped calls with Senate GOP Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the treaty’s chief critic. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also been making calls, Kerry said, and President Obama has spoken with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) about getting the treaty on the chamber’s agenda in December.

Kerry is anxious to show momentum building on the treaty as the Senate’s lame-duck agenda starts to get crowded. Lugar also gave a speech in Washington last month in which he expressed skepticism that the treaty could get an upcoming vote because the GOP’s election victories may depress enthusiasm for taking it up.

“We’re in close contact, all of us, on this issue,” Kerry said. “Sen. Lugar’s question was really whether or not Harry Reid was determined to give it the time. He was concerned that it would get the time that it would need, not whether or not we ought to do it. He is committed to doing it, providing Harry Reid is committed to putting it on the floor and giving it the time. I’ve had a conversation with Sen. Reid and I believe he wants to get this done.

“I’m very hopeful. My own personal expectation is that we’re going to try to move to the START treaty and get the START treaty done. It’s a matter of national security, it’s not a partisan issue — bipartisan support of six former secretaries of defense, five former secretaries of state, the laboratory chiefs, the joint chiefs of staff and the military command all believe this is essential for national security.”

The Senate reconvenes on Monday for a week before breaking for the Thanksgiving recess and returning afterwards. Kerry said the treaty is more likely to surface in December, given how the chamber’s schedule is unfolding.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, also said there is little chance the treaty will come forward until after Thanksgiving.

“Now that the election is over, hopefully the White House and Senate Republicans can reach an agreement that will allow us to ratify the treaty by the end of the year,” Manley said.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty on a bipartisan vote in October. Lugar’s support for the treaty is critical to hopes of persuading at least eight Republicans to cross the aisle to vote for it, as he is a well-respected voice on foreign affairs.

The treaty signed by 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.

Republicans, led by Kyl, have criticized the treaty based on fears that it endangers the U.S. by not taking strong enough steps to “modernize” the country’s existing arsenal of missiles.

Kerry’s trip took him to meetings with South Sudan President Salva Kiir and Vice President Ali Osman Taha, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The trip ended with meetings with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Clinton is also scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday in New York amid concerns over Israel’s settlement construction in the West Bank.

Peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians have been endangered by the construction that restarted after a 10-month moratorium expired.

Kerry said he believes the ongoing construction was already planned and not related to the peace talks.

“I certainly heard about it from President Abbas and I heard about it from Prime Minister Fayyad, and people are concerned about it,” Kerry said. “I do not believe the door is shut to the idea of a continued moratorium, but I also don’t think we are without other mechanisms, other creative avenues, to try to deal with how to get back to direct talks.”