Dems cautiously optimistic on START ahead of 'secret session'

Dems cautiously optimistic on START ahead of 'secret session'

Top Senate Democrats expressed cautious optimism Monday that a stalled arms reduction treaty with Russia would attract enough GOP support to be ratified by Christmas.

Senators will convene a closed-door session at 2 p.m. as part of a final push by the administration to ratify New START, or the strategic arms reduction treaty.

Sens. Dick DurbinDick DurbinSenate Democrats eye talking filibuster Clyburn says he 'wholeheartedly' endorses Biden's voting rights remarks GOP senator knocks Biden for 'spreading things that are untrue' in voting rights speech MORE (Ill.) and Charles SchumerChuck SchumerThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Voting rights week for Democrats (again) Kelly takes under-the-radar approach in Arizona Senate race Hundreds attend mass funeral for victims of Bronx apartment building fire MORE (N.Y.) — the No. 2 and No. 3 Democrats, respectively — said that nine Republicans votes are still in play.

"The president is working really hard on this. He's burning up the phone lines," Schumer said on ABC's "Good Morning America" program. "We do need nine or 10 Republican votes on this, and I do think we will get them."

Durbin said there are eight or nine GOP senators "who will help us make this treaty the law of the land," but told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that that group might not go along, if Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellNAACP president presses senators on voting rights: 'You will decide who defines America' Sununu says he skipped Senate bid to avoid being 'roadblock' to Biden for two years 'All or nothing' won't bolster American democracy: Reform the filibuster and Electoral Count Act MORE (Ky.) "lobbies against us."

McConnell said in a floor speech Monday morning that he will oppose the treaty, saying the "American people don’t want us to squeeze our most important work into the final days of a session."

Monday afternoon's meeting, which Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason Reid'All or nothing' won't bolster American democracy: Reform the filibuster and Electoral Count Act Democrats would rip up election law under the guise of a COVID emergency After the loss of three giants of conservation, Biden must pick up the mantle MORE (D-Nev.) described as a “secret session,” will be held in the Old Senate Chamber.

Two Democratic aides said they expect Gen. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, to brief lawmakers in a last-moment bid to secure GOP support for the treaty. The aides cautioned that Clapper’s appearance is not yet confirmed.

Senate Democrats hope to ratify the treaty by Wednesday at the latest. They then plan to pass a healthcare bill for 9/11 first-responders and confirm a group of judicial and executive appointments, which could keep the Senate in session right up until Christmas Eve.

Funding for the federal government expires at 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, and lawmakers must take care of that before leaving town. Republicans have pushed for a clean resolution that would not include extraneous legislation.

Reid filed a motion Sunday evening to bring the New START treaty to a vote in the next few days. Treaty ratification requires a vote of two-thirds of the senators present in the chamber once a quorum has been established.

He also filed a motion to quash a possible filibuster of the continuing resolution to keep the government in operation until early March. Reid filed the second motion to ensure Senate action on the funding resolution by Tuesday, according to a Democratic aide. He had not reached final agreement on the resolution with McConnell as of late Sunday.

The treaty and the spending measure can be considered on separate and parallel tracks because one is on the executive calendar and the other is on the legislative Calendar of Business.

“After months of consideration and five days of open and robust debate, it is time to move forward on a treaty that will help reverse nuclear proliferation and make it harder for terrorists to get their hands on a nuclear weapon,” Reid said in a statement late Sunday. “Every day we delay is another day we do not have inspectors on the ground in Russia monitoring their nuclear arsenal.”

The Senate will vote on Tuesday to end debate on the stopgap spending measure, a motion that requires 60 votes. It will then vote to end debate on the START, another 60-vote hurdle.

If Republicans invoke the rule that requires 30 hours to elapse between a vote to end debate and a final vote, final ratification of the treaty would wait until Wednesday.

Reid said he did not expect them to delay final passage of the stopgap spending bill because that would deprive the federal government of funding starting at 12 a.m. Wednesday.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John KerryJohn KerryA presidential candidate pledge can right the wrongs of an infamous day Equilibrium/Sustainability — Dam failures cap a year of disasters Four environmental fights to watch in 2022 MORE (D-Mass.) said Republicans have had plenty of time to discuss it.

“We are looking at having more days of debate on this treaty than the START I, START II, Moscow treaty all put together,” Kerry said Sunday afternoon. “So I think the United States Senate — which is appropriate — has [had] time to focus on this treaty.”

Senators appeared to have run out of things to say about the treaty by late afternoon.

Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDemocrats' filibuster gambit unravels Biden: 'I don't know whether we can get this done' Biden to huddle with Senate Democrats as voting bill on brink of defeat MORE (D-Mont.) took to the floor shortly before 4 p.m. to congratulate Carroll College of Helena, Mont., for winning the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national football championship.

Then Sen. Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziLobbying world Cheney on same-sex marriage opposition: 'I was wrong' What Republicans should demand in exchange for raising the debt ceiling MORE (R-Wyo.) rose to tout the recent birth of his granddaughter, Allison.

Not to be left out, Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeRepublicans say Mayorkas failed to deliver report on evacuated Afghans Pelosi faces pushback over stock trade defense Overnight Defense & National Security — Senate looks to break defense bill stalemate MORE (R-Okla.) stood up to present a blown-up photo of his 20 children and grandchildren, and confided to colleagues that they call him Pop-I; “I is for Inhofe.

“So it’s Mom-I and Pop-I, that’s what these kids call me,” Inhofe said.

With senators on both sides of the aisle obviously missing their families as Christmas approaches, leaders negotiated late into Sunday evening to set a roadmap for the final business of the 111th Congress.

Senate Democratic and Republican leaders unexpectedly agreed Sunday evening to pass food-safety legislation by voice vote, rescuing a bill that floated in limbo for weeks because of a clerical error.

The Senate passed the Food Safety and Modernization Act on Nov. 30 by a vote of 73-25. But the bill was later invalidated by a technical objection because it was a revenue-raising measure that did not originate in the House — Senate staff had failed to substitute the food safety language into a House-originated bill.

Reid announced he would send the legislation — this time properly attached to a House-originated measure — back to the lower chamber for final approval. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Reid the House would approve it on Monday or Tuesday, according to Reid.

After passing the continuing resolution and ratifying New START, the Senate will take up 9/11 healthcare legislation.

“We believe we’re on the verge of an eleventh-hour breakthrough,” an exultant Schumer, one of the lead sponsors, announced Sunday.

“Sen. Reid has promised us that he will bring the bill to the floor as soon as the last vote on START occurs,” the New York senator said. “We don’t know exactly when that will occur — that is often up to our Republican colleagues — but we’re next.”

Schumer and his colleague, Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandFormer aide says she felt 'abandoned' by Democrats who advanced Garcetti nomination as ambassador to India Schumer vows to push forward with filibuster change: 'The fight is not over' Defense bill sets up next fight over military justice  MORE (D-N.Y.), won Republican support by changing the provisions to offset the cost of the legislation and reducing the bill’s overall cost from $7.4 billion to $6.2 billion.

The Senate could vote to end debate on the 9/11 healthcare bill on Wednesday, depending how long it takes to finish New START. A final vote on the 9/11 legislation could happen on Wednesday, but Republican critics could drag out the process by invoking procedural rules.

“If people don’t deliberately obstruct, we can get this bill passed — there are three votes that would be required on it — in a matter of hours,” Schumer said.

Schumer acknowledged that “one of our concerns is that someone might try to delay and delay so we get very close to Christmas.”

Schumer said the House would have to stay in town to grant final approval before President Obama can sign the bill into law.

After consideration, Reid hopes to confirm a batch of Obama’s nominees and adjourn the 111th Congress for the rest of the year.

Reid has also called for passage of an omnibus lands bill, a package of more than 110 individual bills that would improve and protect that nation’s public lands, waterways, shore areas and wildlife populations, according to a statement he released.

Reid, however, acknowledged to reporters last week that there might not be enough time to approve that lands measure.

—Jordan Fabian contributed.

Correction: The Senate approved food-safety legislation by voice vote. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.