As the White House scrambles to secure enough GOP Senate votes to ratify the New START treaty with Russia, there's a lot of overt political grandstanding -- and a lot of horse trading going on behind the scenes.
In a long floor speech on Wednesday Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) declared, "I am deeply concerned the New START treaty may once again undermine the confidence of our friends and allies in Central and Eastern Europe." Then, quietly, he offered his support to the Obama administration in exchange for waiving visa requirements for Polish citizens.
Various GOP senators have submitted demands in exchange for their support of the treaty, but they are usually related to concerns over the treaty itself. For example, the administration has offered Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) over $84 billion for nuclear modernization, under the premise that shoring up the safety of the stockpile is needed to ensure national security.
But admitting Poland into the State Department's Visa Waiver Program, a longstanding aim for the Polish government, is pretty tough to tie to the New START treaty. Here's how Voinovich's office linked the issues in a statement given Thursday to The Cable.
"Senator Voinovich is eager to strengthen the United States' relations with our allies in Eastern Europe to allay their concerns stemming from President Obama's pursuit of the ‘Reset Policy,' and the expansion of the existing Visa Waiver Program does just that," said Voinovich's press secretary Rebecca Neal.
Neal said that Voinovich requested an expansion of the Visa Waiver Program following a Sept. 9 phone conversation with Vice President Joseph Biden.
"During the call, Vice President Biden asked what the administration could do to address Senator Voinovich's concerns regarding the treaty, as well as other matters of importance to the senator," said Neal. "The vice president's offer was not limited to items already in the treaty."
Voinovich drove home his advocacy for the Poles in a long floor speech Wednesday about New START that was seen by some as an indication he wasn't ready to support the treaty.
"The president's stated goal of a world without nuclear weapons is noble, but I believe the Senate's consideration of the New START treaty must be considered through a wider lens that includes the treaty's implications for our friends and allies in the former captive nations," said Voinovich.
Voinovich even went so far as to circulate a proposed amendment to the Senate's resolution for ratification for New START, obtained by The Cable, that would prevent the treaty from going into force unless the Visa Waiver Program was opened up to Poland.
A Polish diplomat told The Cable that Warsaw has been working with Voinovich for years on this issue."We knew about this initiative, we support it, and we like it. We have cooperated with Senator Voinovich for years over the issue," the diplomat said. "Maybe with the help of Senator Voinovich we can achieve this in the next months."
But Voinovich may also have interests at home informing his amendment: Large parts of Ohio were settled by Polish immigrants, and second- and-third generation Poles are extremely influential in Ohio government.
The diplomat said that for Poles, and their relatives all over Ohio, the issues is one of fairness -- not related to U.S.-Russian relations in any way.
"We don't fear the ‘reset' with Russia, but the main issue is that we are suffering an injustice right now by being excluded from the program."
Biden's office declined to comment.
Update: Pawel Maciag, press attaché for Embassy of Poland in Washington, wrote in to The Cable, "Quotes from a Polish diplomat published in this article may have mistakenly suggested that Poland takes a position regarding linkage between ratification of the New START and Visa Waiver Program. We do not. We are very sorry for the misunderstanding."
Meanwhile, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski published an article Friday that said, "It is important to make clear: my government supports the ratification of New START, because we believe it will bolster our country’s security, and that of Europe as a whole."
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