The Cable

How midterm elections will immediately change the calculus on New START

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made it clear she wants to see a full Senate vote on the New START nuclear reductions treaty with Russia during the post-election "lame duck" session of Congress. But three Senate seats will immediately change hands after the election, complicating efforts to reach the still-elusive 67-vote threshold needed to ratify the treaty.

Three sitting Democratic senators were appointed to ride out the terms for their retiring colleagues and will hand over their seats immediately after the Nov. 2 election. The winners of the Senate races in West Virginia, Illinois, and Delaware will begin their terms during the lame duck session, and will potentially be placed in the position of voting on the New START, the first major arms control vote in 10 years, as one of their first acts as members of Congress.

Of course, the vote on New START could slip to next year, especially considering that GOP senators continue to throw up roadblocks and refuse to say whether they will ultimately vote for the pact. But that's a worst-case scenario for the administration, because then it might be forced to woo 8 to 10 new GOP senators. But even if the Obama administration gets its wish and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) schedules the vote in November or December, they still will have to deal with a changed Senate landscape. And, even if Democrats win all three of these elections, their "yes" votes are not assured.

Take, for example, the statement e-mailed to The Cable by the campaign of West Virginian Democratic Senate candidate Joe Manchin, who is leading Republican John Raese by only 1.5 points, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls.

"Joe Manchin's governing philosophy on defense policy will be to listen to our commanders and generals on the ground, and before he can cast a vote for or against START II, he will need to assess their recommendations," said his spokesperson Lara Ramsburg.

The Cable tried to follow up and ask the Manchin campaign who, exactly, the "commanders on the ground" are that Manchin would consult on New START. The leaders of the Pentagon have all come out in support of the treaty, so is Manchin waiting for Gen. David Petraeus to weigh in? A military official who inspects missile silos in Russia? We received no follow-up response.

Regardless, the administration can't safely count Manchin as a "yes" vote on the treaty based on that statement.

Raese's campaign spokesman Kevin Mclaughlin was more direct. "John Raese opposes the New START treaty," he said. Clear enough. If he wins, that's one previously safe "yes" vote on the treaty that goes out the window.

Turning to Illinois, the results of the election will have a direct impact on the Senate support for New START. Democrat Alexi Giannoulias said, through an e-mailed statement to The Cable, that nuclear weapons proliferation "is one of the most important national security threats facing the United States... I support the ratification of the new START nuclear arms control agreement reached with Russia, which will reduce both arsenals by one-third, and hope that it will be swiftly ratified by the Senate."

But Giannoulias trails Rep.  Mark Kirk (R-IL) by 1.8 points, according to the latest RCP average, and Kirk is decidedly undecided on the issue. "The congressman will review the details of the treaty carefully and make his decision based on what is in the best interest of America's national security," his campaign spokesman Richard Goldberg said.

Kirk is a foreign policy expert and has a track record of working with Democrats on national security issues, so when push comes to shove, the Obama administration may be able to convince him. Right now, though, he's firmly aligned with the vast majority of Republican senators, who have yet to announce how they will vote on New START.

Over in Delaware, GOP candidate Christine O'Donnell's position tracks very closely with the GOP senators who still have serious concerns about the treaty and are pushing for a delay in the vote.

"I would look very carefully at any treaty before the U.S. Senate," O'Donnell told The Cable in an e-mailed statement. "There is nothing wrong in principle with reducing nuclear weapons as long as it is verifiable and we ensure that we can meet all of our defense requirements. There are several concerns with New START Treaty as it stands before the U.S. Senate right now. ... Before I could vote in support of New START, each of these concerns would have to be fully addressed."

She mentioned concerns that the treaty could constrain U.S. missile defense, questions about Obama's plan for nuclear modernization, and Russia's cooperation in combating the nuclear ambitions of Iran. Six senators renewed their complaints about missile defense this week, asking the administration to assure them that ongoing talks between the United States and Russia wouldn't result in a "missile defense agreement" that would limit U.S. plans.

The State Department has repeatedly denied that any such agreement is in the works, but the senators want them to reveal the details of the discussions, which administration has no intention of doing.

Delaware's Democratic candidate Chris Coons, who leads O'Donnell by 17.6 points in the polls, didn't respond to repeated requests for an explanation of his position on New START.

The exact vote count is crucial, because Reid is not likely to schedule the floor debate and vote until he is assured by the White House that it has 67 confirmed "yes" votes. Our Senate sources tell us that Reid is waiting for that exact signal from the White House.

A Senate leadership aide would only say that New START is on a list of things that are "possible" for the lame duck session.

The treaty's backers in the administration, both at State and on Capitol Hill, are exasperated after what they feel has been a herculean effort to build support for the treaty on the Hill, including answering hundreds of questions from Congress, holding dozens of hearings, and briefing senators and their staffs on a constant basis.

But lawmakers and administration officials know that lame duck sessions are notoriously unpredictable and, therefore, nobody is counting on the vote definitely happening this year.

"We're taking nothing for granted and we're addressing every concern and giving every reassurance where we can," an administration official told The Cable. "That's where we are."

CQ-Roll Call Group

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