Following Tuesday's election, one of the biggest foreign policy questions is whether far-right groups will press mainstream Republicans to resist key items on the Obama administration's international agenda, such as the New START treaty with Russia.
Heritage Action for America, the lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, answered that question in the affirmative Thursday by sending out a new mailer across the country targeting specific senators, mostly Republicans, in the hope of pressuring them to vote against the treaty. The campaign targets Democratic senators in conservative states, Republican senators in liberal states, and even Republicans who have indicated support for New START, such as Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN).
"Why did Senator Bob Corker vote in committee to put Russia's military interests ahead of our own," reads one iteration of the mailing, referring to Corker's vote to approve the treaty in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sept. 16. With a picture juxtaposing the images of Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the mailer alleges that President Obama and lawmakers are using the "lame duck" session of Congress to ram through the New START treaty, which it argues "severely weakens our national security."
Heritage also alleges that the treaty, which would cut levels of the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons arsenals, would somehow lead to more nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran, which the mailer refers to as "countries that want to destroy us."
"There's still time to put a stop to this dangerous plan," the mailer says. "You can make a difference by urging Sen. Corker to change his mind and oppose New START."
Responding directly to the mailer, Corker's Chief of Staff Todd Womack told The Cable that Heritage's mailer contains several errors and promotes several misconceptions about the New START treaty.
"Obviously if the claims made in the mailer were true, there is no way Senator Corker would support the treaty, but they are not. Senator Corker would never support a treaty that undermines the safety and security of the citizens of the United States or limits America's ability to pursue effective missile defense, and to suggest otherwise is irresponsible," Womack said.
Corker is also still awaiting firm commitments from the administration for what he considers long overdue investments in the modernization of the nuclear arsenal before committing to voting "yes" on the floor, he added.
Heritage's strategy includes targeting Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), considered to be the key vote on New START because he can potentially bring large parts of the GOP caucus in tow. The White House is said to be preparing new concessions on issues that Kyl has long advocated, such as even more funding for nuclear modernization and nuclear labs. So far, Kyl has not shown his cards.
The administration also has a fallback plan if Kyl ultimately balks: The State Department and the Vice President's office have been courting moderate Republicans, including Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, along with Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown, in an attempt to peel off the 8 to 10 GOP votes needed to reach the 67-vote threshold for ratification. Though it seems unlikely that so many Senate Republicans would buck party leadership, the administration's earlier outreach to Corker and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) was helpful in getting both those senators to support the New START treaty in committee last month.
The Heritage effort targets all of those GOP senators, and also Democratic senators from red states such as Montana's Max Baucus and Jon Tester. In Utah, Bob Bennett has indicated he is inclined to support New START, making him a target as well.
Heritage has been working with presumptive 2012 candidate Mitt Romney on the issue. Other Tea Party-related groups such as Liberty Central, run by Clarence Thomas' wife Ginny Thomas, are also on board. But it's not clear that the New START treaty is an issue that voters really follow, much less vote on.
Heritage claims that it wants to pressure various senators to get off the fence and declare their position on New START, one way or the other.
"For too long, senators have stood quietly on the sidelines, refusing to take a firm stand on the issue," said Michael Needham, Heritage's chief executive officer. "Given the administration's desire to see the treaty ratified during a lame-duck session, Americans deserve to know what is at stake and where their senators stand."
On Thursday, President Obama called for the Senate to take up the treaty during the lame duck session. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is said to be waiting until the White House tells him that it has secured enough "yes" votes before scheduling floor time for the vote. The Senate returns to town with two new senators on Nov. 15, neither of whom has taken a position on New START.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.