President Obama doubled down Thursday on the need to ratify the New START nuclear reductions treaty with Russia during the post-election lame duck session of Congress, echoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's call on Sept. 30. But one Republican senator who voted for the treaty is convinced it's better to push the vote back until next year.
"This is not a traditionally Democratic or Republican issue, but rather an issue of American national security," Obama said. "And I am hopeful that we can get that done before we leave (at the end of the year) and send a strong signal to Russia that we are serious about reducing nuclear arsenals, but also send a signal to the world that we're serious about nonproliferation."
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), one of three Republicans to vote for the treaty on Sept. 16 in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, hasn't yet committed to voting for the treaty on the floor. He now says that he doesn't think there's enough time in the post-election congressional session to properly debate and vote on the pact.
"Senator Corker believes it is far more appropriate to deal with major pieces of legislation like this in settings other than a lame duck session," Todd Womack, his chief of staff, told The Cable.
The ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Richard Lugar (R-IN), who supports the treaty, has been calling for the Senate to act faster and would have preferred to deal with the issue before the midterm elections. But Lugar did acknowledge in Oct. 27 remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations that big gains by the GOP in the election would make completing the Senate's work on New START more difficult.
"Some, I suspect, will argue that the lame-duck session is not a good time to do that," Lugar said. "I have no idea what the results will be of the election, but in the event that there are very substantial changes, and many of them on the Republican side, some will say this is something we really haven't had a chance to get into, to study, and we want more time."
Lugar turned out to be right. Senate Foreign Relations committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), who is leading the ratification effort in the Senate, has said he only needs two or three days of floor time to give everybody a chance to air their views and consider "reservations" that senators may want to bring up and vote on.
Of course, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) can keep the Senate in session as long as he wants. It's a time-honored tactic in Congress to force senators to stay in town as the winter vacation approaches, thus making them choose between a principled stand on an issue and their desire to go home for the holidays.
And there is plenty of precedent for passing major legislation during lame duck sessions. Congress passed the Clean Air Act in the post-election period in 1970. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, a piece of legislation that served as the foundation on which the World Trade Organization was created was passed during the lame duck session in 1994, just after the last GOP wave election. In 2002, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security during the lame duck session.
There's also precedent for Congress passing treaties with bipartisan support after a changeover of control. The Senate provided advice and consent on the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty Flank Agreement after the Democrats lost control in 1994.
But that was then and this is now. And if Corker and Lugar are skeptical that the START treaty can be completed this year, the Russian Duma apparently agrees with them. The Duma repealed its recommendation for Russian ratification of New START immediately after the U.S. election results came in.
"If the 'lame duck' senators from the old make-up cannot do this in the next weeks then the chances of ratification in the new Senate will be radically lower than they were until now," Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Duma's International Affairs Committee, told the Interfax news agency.
If the treaty is pushed to next year, the more conservative Senate might not ratify it, Kosachev said.
"Many will be in principle against agreeing on anything with Russia. In that case we will have to start from scratch. That is the worst-case scenario -- completely awful. For now, I do not want to believe in it."
John Podesta, the president of the Center for American Progress, said Thursday on MSNBC that the GOP positioning on the START treaty will be an indicator of how the GOP plans to deal with Obama going forward. "Will Senator McConnell... get [START] done and go along with [the President]. ... If he says no we are just going to be into obstructionism and the just-say-no-party," Podesta said. "We'll at least know where the Republican leadership stands."
Meanwhile, the Heritage Foundation's lobbying arm Heritage Action for American started sending out mailers to 10 states on Thursday, targeting GOP supporters on the treaty, GOP senators who are on the fence, and Democratic senators in red states. The mailer states that the treaty will "lead to more nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue countries like North Korea and Iran."
The administration is reportedly preparing a final package of promises on issues like nuclear modernization to try to garner the support of Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the key GOP vote, while simultaneously noting that, after holding dozens of hearings and answering hundreds of questions from the Hill, senators should have enough information to make their decision and move on the treaty now.
"There's no sense in putting off what we need now to the next Congress," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Thursday.
"The Senate has a responsibility to do its job and not waste time," said treaty supporter Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "Further delaying a vote on New START hurts U.S. national security."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.