As senators lined up Thursday to give speeches about the New START treaty on the Senate floor and the debate kicked into high gear, the White House formally abandoned its drive to work with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) on ratifying the treaty.
Following Kyl's press conference Wednesday afternoon, during which he and 11 other GOP senators pledged to oppose the move to finish the treaty this year, the administration decided to make good on its promise to force a vote during the lame duck session and attempt to peel off the nine GOP votes that it will need to pass the treaty.
"Senator Kyl is opposed to the treaty. He's flat out opposed to the treaty," Vice President Joseph Biden told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell in an interview taped Wednesday evening.
Biden also criticized Kyl and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who said that debating the New START treaty this month was "disrespectful" and "sacrilegious" to Christians, respectively. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann called their tactic the "war against Christmas vacation."
"Don't tell me about Christmas. I understand Christmas. I was a senator for a long time and I've been there many years where we go right up to Christmas," Biden said. "There's 10 days between now and Christmas. I hope I don't get in the way of your Christmas shopping, but this is the nation's business. This is the national security at stake. Act."
And so ends what at times had been a torturous attempt by the administration to cajole, entice, and even bribe Kyl to sign off on the treaty. The process began last year, when the administration flew Kyl to Geneva to witness the negotiations surrounding the treaty, and ended with the administration flying a team of officials to Arizona last month to present details of an $84 billion package for nuclear modernization they hoped would be enough to gain Kyl's support.
Kyl, who the Senate GOP anointed as their leader on New START, has been very coy about whether he would ultimately support the pact, even until yesterday. "If I announce for or against the treaty at this point, nobody would listen to me," he said at his press conference.
Only days after the administration flew a team to his home state, he declared there was no time to complete the treaty this year. Shortly after that announcement, Biden and top White House officials hosted a small roundtable with foreign affairs columnists, which included your humble Cable guy, where they promised to move forward with or without Kyl.
Looks like it's going to be without him. Biden's new boldness stems comes after 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.
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).
The vote has given treaty supporters confidence in the chances of ratification, but there will be many more twists and turns before that can happen. There are already signs that the procedural vote does not necessarily reflect how some senators will vote on the treaty. For example, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) issued a statement that he may support the treaty even though he voted against moving to debate.
"I voted against proceeding to consideration of the New START treaty because I don't agree with the decision to debate a nuclear arms treaty at the end of a lame duck session in the midst of considering an omnibus appropriations bill," said Corker. "But now that we are on the bill... if there is a full and open debate on the treaty and if the resolution of ratification isn't weakened in the process, it is still my plan to support the treaty."
The administration is also still working to increase the number of treaty supporters. Now that they feel there's a reasonable chance of passage, they are hoping fence-sitters can be encouraged to move to the winning side. Their targets are figures like Corker and Sen. Johnny Isaakson (R-GA), who voted for the treaty in committee, and other "moderate" GOPers, like new Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL).
They seem prepared to write off GOP senators who have said they might vote for the treaty but not if it's pushed through this month.
The GOP senators complaining about the schedule Wednesday were Sens. Kyl, Kirk, Pat Roberts (R-KS), 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), George LeMieux (R-FL), Mike Johanns (R-NE), and John Cornyn (R-TX).
Alexander, Lemieux and others have said they could perhaps support the treaty next year but will vote no during the lame duck session. Of course, that's what Kyl has said as well, and that's exactly the line that the White House is now openly rejecting.
Meanwhile, the Thursday debate focused the GOP senators's numerous concerns about the treaty, including missile defense, nuclear modernization, tactical nuclear weapons, and verification. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) spoke about the need to avoid amendments to the treaty's preamble, which were ruled in order by the Senate parliamentarian this week.
"The fact is, if you change that preamble now, you are effectively killing the treaty, because it requires the president to go back to the Russians and renegotiate the treaty," he said.
One amendment, which Kerry and supporters is calling a "treaty killer," would strip the preamble of language that acknowledges a relationship between offensive and defensive missile capabilities. Some Republicans think that may constrain U.S. missile defense plans, but the administration and Lugar disagree.
"This does not mean that Russia will not complain regarding U.S. missile defense deployment, as it has complained about U.S. missile defense plans for the past four decades," Lugar said. "But under the New START Treaty, we will continue to control our own missile defense destiny, not Russia."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.