Now that Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) has made it clear he will not agree to support the New START treaty this year, despite President Barack Obama’s pledge to hold the vote during the lame duck session, the White House has redoubled efforts to find nine Republican “yes” votes that don’t include Kyl, the Republican’s designated leader on the issue.
For over a year, the intensive administration effort to secure Senate ratification of the New START treaty with Russia has focused primarily on securing the support of one GOP senator. The efforts included over 30 high-level interactions with Kyl, as detailed in a White House fact sheet circulated on Friday, as well as intensive efforts to secure over $84 billion for nuclear modernization that Kyl demanded.
But inside the White House, there’s frustration and exasperation with Kyl, especially since he is still saying he’s not ready to agree to a vote. So the administration is apparently playing hardball now, charging ahead toward a vote with or without his support.
In a small roundtable at the White House on Friday afternoon with columnists, including your humble Cable guy, Vice President Joseph Biden flatly rejected the argument that the administration took too long to give the Senate enough time to debate and vote on the treaty this year.
“That is not true, there’s been no delay here,” Biden said. “The reason we didn’t push earlier is that the Republican leadership said to us ‘Look, Jon Kyl is the point guy.’ Literally, [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell said Jon Kyl, which was kind of a kick in the teeth to [Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican] Dick [Lugar], but Jon Kyl, he’s the guy, unless you get Jon…”
Biden was careful not to say that Kyl was intentionally moving the goalposts as a delaying strategy, but he did detail Kyl’s several new requests for various things as the Senate consultation process progressed.
“Jon did a really good job of asking for a whole lot of information and commitments,” Biden said. “Jon then came back and asked for something that I don’t every recall has been done before, and that is ask us to go on the line now, which we have, on the fiscal year 2012 budget and make it clear what we were going to do, to the point where I’ve already got to the appropriations committee and said, ‘this is what I expect.’”
“I don’t want to say Jon was conditioning, but it was an indirect condition,” Biden said. “After 36 years in the Senate, I knew if we tried to move the treaty in June, July, September, it was going to go nowhere because Jon would be able to say to a lot of Republicans who would just as soon, as we Catholics say, have this cup pass from us, to be in a position to say ‘we just can’t do it.’”
Three senior administration officials, speaking after Biden left the meeting, said that they were continuing to work as fast as they could to try meet Kyl's demands and answer his questions.
“We’re hearing from Senator Kyl that we came too late with this offer, we don’t have enough time to study it. It’s quite an extraordinary thing, showing the budget to Congress three months early, I don’t think it’s ever been done before. And two days after we finalized the numbers, we flew a team to Arizona to see him and present it to him for three hours. So now he says we are ‘too late,’ when it was he who laid out the schedule,” one senior administration official said.
“It was Senator Kyl himself who suggested that the lame duck would be an appropriate time to look at the START treaty back in early September,” said a different senior administration official. “It’s ready for a vote and we had some expectation, although not a guarantee, that the lame duck was a possibility.”
The bottom line is that the White House is no longer counting on Kyl to bring around his caucus and has reverted back to an earlier, second-track strategy to reach out to all the other GOP senators the administration thinks might vote “yes.”
“There’s a number that we need to get to get this passed. The question is, if Senator Kyl decides he is not able to support it now, whether a number of other Republicans would come on board and support the treaty,” one official said. “We believe that at the end of the day we will have made that so clear, the broader argument on the merits of treaty… can carry the day with enough Republican senators to get this passed.”
One official allowed that if GOP senators decide to vote for the treaty despite Kyl’s intransigence, it would not necessarily mean they were breaking with Kyl.
“No matter the decision Senator Kyl makes on how he votes, he’s in a position because of the work we’ve done together on modernization to say he’s gotten a real success here. I don’t think anyone would be abandoning Senator Kyl if they decide to vote for the treaty and he decides to vote against it,” the official explained.
The officials said that the administration is committed to holding a vote this year and was working with that single goal in mind. There’s no work being done to plan for a debate and vote next year.
So if they come to the end of the lame duck session and the White House hasn’t secured 67 firm “yes” votes, what will happen? Will the president call on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV)to force the vote and hope that GOP fence-sitters make the right choice? Or will the administration table the treaty and try again next session?
“We’ll have to make a judgment. We’re doing all the work we need to do to put this before the Senate. We’ll try to make our best estimate about where we are and people above my pay grade will have to make that decision,” one official said.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.