All In?

Nov 18, 2010

By Chris Jones

Senator Lugar, who has been the key Republican voice in favor of New START, issued a scathing indictment of the GOP’s foot dragging on the treaty yesterday. Josh Rogin reports:

In a stunning rebuke to members of his own caucus, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) said on Wednesday that the GOP is intentionally trying to put off a vote on the New START treaty with Russia, and avoiding a serious discussion about the treaty within the caucus.

"At the moment, the Republican caucus is tied up in a situation where people don't want to make choices," Lugar told reporters in the hallway of the Capitol building Wednesday. "No one wants to be counted. No one wants to talk about it."

. . .

But according to Lugar, the Republican leadership is preventing a debate on the treaty for the rest of the year because they don't want to force their rank-and-file members to take a position on the agreement.

Kerry and Kyl continued to meet on Wednesday, ostensibly to work out a deal based on the $84 billion the administration is promising Kyl for nuclear modernization in exchange for his support of the treaty. Kyl told The Cable that negotiations were going forward "in good faith," but Lugar suggested that's all a smoke screen and that the Republican leadership is committed to avoiding completion of the treaty for the foreseeable future.

[Also: Steve Clemmons has the video here]

Lugar’s outspoken criticism on the issue is commendable. The administration has put on a full court press to wine and dine Kyl, including a trip out to Arizona and an extra $4.1 billion in modernization funds, all to no avail. At some point, you have to call a spade a spade. Kyl’s slow rolling earned him some flak from the press today but the big question for the administration remains: call or raise? Should the administration continue to play by Senator Kyl’s rules, thereby likely condemning New START to the next Congress, or should they push their chips in and schedule a lame duck vote? The former risks sending the Treaty into a procedural quagmire, which could be many months as incoming GOP senators seek to “participate fully and in an informed manner,” from which it may never escape. Meanwhile, the latter conjures up images of the CTBT vote in 1999.  Matt Rojansky lays outs this case in the Atlantic:

Matthew Rojansky, the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the alarmist rhetoric flowing from the White House and from pundits shouldn't be a reason to push ahead with a vote. Rojansky says Kyl may be waiting until the next Congress to make sure the Administration's $4.1 billion promise is sincere. He may also be planning to insert explicit language about nuclear modernization funds into the legislation, or waiting for the promised funds to appear in a spring appropriations bill.

If Reid forces a vote now, he likely won't receive the two-thirds vote necessary for ratification. "I wouldn't take the risk, and I wouldn't give up the possibility of an objectively better scenario in 2011," Rojansky says.

Yet the "all in" strategy might have a few things going for it.  Most importantly, the White House claims to have the votes.  If that's not the case, all bets are off but you have to think some of the moderatre Republicans like Snowe and Collins would be hard pressed to actually vote no.  The administration has a strong case that it has put in the time (including 18 hearings and 900 questions for the record) and that New START has overwhelming support from foremost national security experts, the public, and key administration officials like Mullen, Clinton, and Gates. While the GOP will cry foul should the Democrats force a vote, the current state of affairs doesn't leave one particularly optimistic about the state of bipartisanship irrespective of whether New START passes with 67 or 95 votes.  Moreover, Senator Kyl’s recent statements begin to seriously call into question where the cat and mouse game between the administration and Kyl's office will end.  It would be great if the Treaty sailed by with the same degree of consensus past arms control agreements enjoyed but it may be time for the Administration to show they are willing to ram the Treaty through regardless of how many votes above 67 they have. John Podesta explains the strategy in POLITICO:

The New START treaty has genuine bipartisan support and ratification is crucial to restore the verification system, which lapsed when the original agreement expired in 2009. Senate Republicans, however, prefer yet more delays, because they fear losing their leverage once it’s time to vote yes or no.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) must recognize that most Republicans have little interest in killing the treaty. He should schedule a vote in this lame-duck session. The United States -- and the world -- will then know whether Republicans choose partisanship or the security of the United States.

. . .

The Republican leadership, however, appears to be stalling -- perhaps to extort as much as possible out of the Obama administration, or maybe just to make the president look ineffective and weak.

Their leverage is in dragging out the process. This tactic has worked so far -- Democrats have twice delayed action to appease them. But the political upside of voting down the treaty is minimal. The glow of defeating Obama would be overshadowed by the significant and lasting downsides to U.S. national security.
. . .

Republican senators must know this, which is why -- despite all their complaining -- so few have said they would vote against the treaty. The votes will be there.

After seven months of consideration, 20 hearings and more than 700 questions submitted by senators, it is time to vote on New START. Republicans are likely to offer their familiar complaints -- that Democrats are rushing it through and they need more time.

The Obama administration and Reid should stop these delays: Schedule the vote and force senators to choose between partisan politics and the national security of the United States

If you've got the cards, it very well might be the play to make.