The debate over New START officially began on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon, as Democrats and Republicans staked out seemingly irreconcilable positions as the Christmas holiday approaches.
A vote to move to debate on the treaty Wednesday passed 66 to 32, indicating that there is not enough Republican opposition to stop the process from moving forward. Democrat Evan Bayh (D-IN) missed the vote but is expected to support the treaty. The vote is giving treaty supporters confidence in the chances of ratification, but there are to be many more twists and turns before that can happen.
Nine Republicans voted to begin the debate: Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Susan Collins (R-ME), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), George Voinovich (R-OH), Richard Lugar (R-IN), Scott Brown (R-MA), and Bob Bennett (R-UT).
Following the vote, leading Senate Democrats and Republicans held dueling press conferences on Capitol Hill Wednesday afternoon in what has turned into a high-stakes game of legislative chicken. Only three GOP senators have publicly announced their support for New START, and nobody knows for sure if there are 6 additional Senate Republicans who will buck their own party's leadership to support the agreement when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) calls the vote, probably before Christmas day.
One large looming question is whether the White House will insist on holding the vote if it hasn't secured assurances of the 67 "yes" votes needed for ratification when the clock runs out on the lame duck session.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), in a press conference today, said that Vice President Joseph Biden told him he'd rather take the risk that the treaty is defeated this year than take the risk of delaying consideration until the new Congress is seated in January.
Acknowledging that it's the White House's decision whether to call the vote and risk defeat, Kerry said that Biden told him personally that the outlook in the next Congress is worse than the outlook now.
"We'd rather lose [the vote on New START] now with the crowd that's done the work on rather than go back and start from scratch [next session]," Kerry said that Biden told him.
Kerry said that, after months of delaying the vote in order to try to accommodate Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), he and Reid were moving ahead without him and would eventually cut off debate, call a cloture vote, and roll the dice.
"We had to fish or cut bait, so that's what we're doing," Kerry said, regarding the abandoned effort to work with Kyl. He also said he is confident that when the vote is called, the treaty will be approved with at least 67 votes. "We believe we should stay here as long as it takes to get this treaty ratified and we are prepared to do so."
Kyl and 11 of his GOP Senate colleagues strenuously disagreed with that assessment and took to the microphones Wednesday afternoon to denounce the Obama administration and Senate Democratic leadership for moving forward with the debate over New START.
Kyl pointed to the strong statements by the 12 Republican senators as a strong signal that the treaty's passage was far from assured. "The administration needs to take that into account when they consider if they really have the votes that they need," he said.
He also again declined to state his position on the treaty, simply pledging to oppose it on principle if the vote is held this year. Kyl admitted his coyness was a strategic decision to maintain his relevance in the negotiations.
"If I announce for or against the treaty at this point, nobody would listen to me," he said.
The tone of the debate over New START descended into downright nastiness on all sides Wednesday. After Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) said he would insist the entire treaty be read aloud (a delaying tactic that could eat up 8 hours of floor time), White House spokesman Robert Gibbs issued a statement calling the maneuver "the height of hypocrisy" and "a new low in putting political stunts ahead of our national security."
Kyl said Wednesday that Senate Democratic leadership was "disrespecting one of the two holiest days for Christians" by debating New START so close to Christmas and DeMint called it "sacrilegious."
"I don't need to hear the sanctimonious lectures of Sens. Kyl and DeMint to remind me of what Christmas means," Reid shot back on the Senate floor.
In the Republican press conference, various senators referenced substantive concerns about the treaty, ranging from missile defense, to verification, to nuclear modernization. But the message from several was that they were inclined to support the treaty but would not do so if it was "jammed through" in the next couple of weeks without what they consider to be ample time for debate.
The GOP senators complaining about the schedule were Kyl, Bennett, Kit Bond (R-MO), James Risch (R-ID), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Jeff Sessions (R-GA), John Thune (R-SD), John Barrasso (R-WY), Mark Kirk (R-IL), George LeMieux (R-FL), Mike Johanns (R-NE), and John Cornyn (R-TX).
"One thing we should have learned [from the election] is that the people don't trust the Senate when the majority jams things through without adequate debate," said Bond.
"I think the Democrat leadership looks incompetent," said Thune.
"This is not the way to do it, this is not the way to get 67 votes," said Alexander.
In the Democratic press conference, Kerry was flanked by Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) and Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). Both attempted to refute GOP criticisms about the substance of the treaty while arguing that the treaty should be considered in the current Congressional session.
"We're not going to be thwarted by obstructionists here. We cannot be, because the national security of our country is at stake," Levin said.
Kerry took time to refute Kyl's argument that 10 days of legislative time is needed to properly vet the treaty. He pointed out that the original START was approved after only 5 days of floor consideration in 1992 by a vote of 93-6.
START II, which was approved by the U.S. Senate but never went into force, was approved by a vote of 87-4 in 1996, after only 2 days of Senate consideration. During the George W. Bush administration, the three-page Moscow Treaty, which contained no verification whatsoever, received only 2 days of debate and passed 95-0.
Kerry said he was confident that Republicans will change their tune as the vote proceeds. "Let's see how people feel tomorrow, and how they feel the day after tomorrow, after they've had a chance to digest and think about what's appropriate and what isn't," he said.
He then called out to Republicans to put aside their complaints and work with Democrats to get it done.
"Send the country a message at Christmas time, that we have the ability to work together," Kerry 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.