As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gets ready to vote on President Obama's nuclear arms reductions treaty, several Republican senators are now hinting that they will support the agreement and are working toward bipartisan ratification.
The key senator to watch is Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican point man on the treaty. Kyl, who is in talks with the office of Vice President Joseph Biden, isn't saying which way he's leaning -- but his friends say Kyl is getting closer to supporting ratification.
Utah Sen. Bob Bennett told The Cable in an exclusive interview Tuesday that he wants to vote for the treaty, but is holding off until he gets the nod from his leadership.
"I'm waiting for Senator Kyl to finish his analysis, but he's leaning yes and I'm leaning yes," Bennett said.
Contrary to some Republicans who don't believe that reducing nuclear stockpiles is a good idea at all, such as Jim DeMint, R-SC, James Inhofe, R-OK, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Bennett said the treaty is a good idea and even characterized it as a constructive part of President Obama's reset policy with Russia.
"I think it's a step in the right direction and a continuation of the thawing of the relationship between the United States and Russia that goes all the way back to the Ronald Reagan. We're now at the point where this is probably a good idea."
Bennett had a "friendly conversation" with Biden last week. Biden's office has been taking the lead on the issue, using his deputy national security advisor Brian McKeon to coordinate ratification strategy, administration sources said. Kyl had denied to The Cable that he was negotiating with Biden, but a spokesman confirmed that Kyl did meet with Biden but just didn't want to characterize it as "negotiating."
The White House has taken the lead role in Congress although State Department officials did the heavy lifting in negotiating the deal with Russia over the last year. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is still involved -- she met with another potential GOP vote, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, on the issue this month -- but the strategy is being driven in the Old Executive Office.
"It's a White House priority, so that's the way it is," one administration source relates.
Meanwhile, back on Capitol Hill, other senior Republican senators are signaling they are getting ready to support ratification.
"Hopefully we can create an environment, after general study, that would permit the Senate to ratify the treaty in a bipartisan way," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-TN, the third-ranking senator in the Republican caucus, told The Cable. "But we're not there yet."
"It will depend primarily on whether we can have an adequate nuclear modernization program going forward," he said. "I'm working very closely with Senator Kyl to make that happen."
Other GOP senators aren't yet showing their cards, and are withholding their support until their particular concerns are addressed.
Sen. John Thune, R-SD, told The Cable that he is waiting for a response to his request for a briefing from the Defense Department about the Pentagon's intentions regarding delivery systems for nuclear weapons. In Thune's eyes, the new treaty doesn't have enough clarity on the mix of bombers, missiles, and submarines that will be used going forward.
Ellsworth Air Force Base in Thune's state would stand to benefit greatly if a new bomber was built.
Thune also expressed the lingering feeling among many Republicans that New START isn't a great deal for the United States.
"I don't disagree with the idea that we ought to try to have some equilibrium between their capabilities and ours, but it seems to me right now that we have made reductions without any sort of comparable type of reductions from the Russians," he said.
The treaty text requires each side to cap its arsenal to 1,500 deployed warheads and 700 deployed delivery vehicles. Thune's contention is that the Russians were already planning to reduce to those levels.
With Senate Foreign Relations ranking Republican Richard Lugar, R-IN, as a firm yes vote, the committee can approve the treaty whenever it chooses. But Lugar and his chairman, John Kerry, D-MA, don't want to force GOP fence sitters to make a call before they are ready. And Kyl has made clear he won't let the treaty come to the Senate floor until his concerns are addressed.
But time is of the essence for treaty supporters. The Senate leaves for recess next after next week and ratification would have to be fit into a hectic, politically charged session beginning after Labor Day and leading up to the midterm elections. "Senator Kerry is working with his colleagues and the administration to hear views and address questions raised by senators about the new START treaty and related issues as quickly as possible," said committee spokesman Fred Jones.
There's no decisions yet on when to bring up the agreement. "Ultimately, the goal is to build consensus for the timely ratification of this vital treaty," he said.