The road ahead for New START got much clearer Sunday, as the treaty heads for a final vote this week despite the now open opposition of the two top Republicans in the Senate.
Sunday's Senate action surrounded an amendment put forth by Sen. James Risch (R-ID) that sought to amend the treaty's preamble to add an acknowledgment that there is a relationship between strategic nuclear weapons (which are covered by the treaty) and tactical nuclear weapons (which are not). Risch argued that as the number of strategic weapons decreases, the significance of tactical nuclear weapons increases, and Russia has a distinct advantage in numbers of tactical nukes.
The Risch amendment failed by a vote of 32-60, after Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) characterized it as a "treaty killer" amendment because any change to the preamble would require a new round of negotiations with the Russian government.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) filed cloture on the treaty Sunday night, which sets up a vote on Tuesday to end debate, according to what Kerry said on the floor. That would need 50 votes to succeed, after which there is still a maximum of 30 hours of additional debate before the final vote has to occur, placing the final vote on Thursday, December 23, the last working day before Christmas, Kerry said.
Reid declared he's not backing down. "As we move ahead, I look forward to continuing to debate amendments," he said on the Senate floor. "But soon this will come down to a simple choice; you either want to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists, or you don't."
A lot could change between now and then. Senate aides said that Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) was working with Democrats behind the scenes on a time agreement for the debate. As of Sunday evening, no time agreement had been struck.
The fact that it's now Corker doing the negotiating is significant. Until recently, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) had been the center of attention. But after nine GOP senators voted to move to debate New START last week over the objections of Kyl, the administration wrote off Kyl's vote and decided to push forward with the Republicans that were willing to go along.
Having no more leverage over the administration's decision making, Kyl went ahead and confirmed Vice President Joe Biden's speculation that Kyl was "flat out opposed" to the treaty in its current form and therefore would vote no when the final vote occurs.
"This treaty needs to be fixed. And we are not going to have the time to do that in the bifurcated way or trifurcated way that we're dealing with it here, with other issues being parachuted in all the time," said Kyl on Fox News Sunday, stating clearly if the treaty is not amended, he would vote no.
Kyl said repeatedly that there's just not enough time in the lame duck session to properly debate the treaty and make adjustments to meet GOP concerns about missile defense and other subjects.
"Well, what are we going through this exercise, then, for?" he went on. "We're just a rubber stamp for the administration and the Russians, the administration that for the first time wasn't willing to stand up to the Russians and say, ‘You're not going to implicate our missile defenses.'"
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) followed suit and announced his own public opposition to the treaty Sunday, as well.
"I've decided I cannot support the treaty," McConnell said on CNN's State of the Union. "I think if they'd taken more time with this, rushing it right before Christmas strikes me as trying to jam us."
Biden, asked Sunday if he was confident that there were enough votes to pass New START without McConnell and Kyl, said on Meet the Press, "I believe we do."
The administration may be writing off Kyl and McConnell's votes and therefore their concerns, but the broad GOP frustration with the process is real. Kerry keeps saying he will give the GOP as much time as they want to debate real amendments, but will cut off debate if he sees intentional stalling.
"We have now spent 5 days having a very good debate on New START and proposed amendments. That is as much time as the Senate spent on START I, and more than it spent on START II and the Moscow Treaty combined, but we are looking forward to continuing the debate this week," Kerry said.
But several GOP offices want more time to air their concerns, both for the historical record and to defend the idea that the Senate still has real influence over treaties.
"This is not an attempt to kill the treaty, this is an attempt to make it better," Risch said right before his amendment was voted down. "We have the right, we have the duty. We must advise and consent."
More amendments on the actual treaty are expected Monday. The next up is an amendment by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) that would increase the number of inspections mandated by the treaty. That amendment will also be discussed in a closed session scheduled for Monday afternoon to discuss classified intelligence matters related to New START.
Inhofe's amendment would triple the number of "Type One" inspections from 10 to 30 and triple the number of "Type Two" inspections from 8 to 24. Under the current language there is a reduction from 40 inspections per year in old START to 18 in New START.
Some Republicans think the current number of 18 inspections is unfair, because the U.S. only has 17 facilities that qualify for inspections, so Russians would see all of ours in one year. Russia has 35 facilities, so it would take us two years to see all the Russian facilities.
Inhofe's amendment is also expected to be rejected after Kerry identifies it as a "treaty killer." Treaty supporters have been successful in batting down Republican amendments, including one Saturday by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), by painting them as "treaty killers."
Kerry keeps suggesting that amendments should be made to the Resolution of Ratification (ROR), an accompanying document that doesn't require Russian consent to be changed. The problem is, nobody on the GOP side knows whether there will actually be time to debate the ROR at length.
As the Christmas holiday approaches and this round of amendments drags on, there's a good chance that the debate on the ROR could be very hurried. So, the lack of clarity is pushing GOP senators to move their amendments now out of fear the clock will run out.
And by the way, the treaty supporters may have lost Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) who all but ruled out voting for the treaty during the lame duck session.
"I'm not going to vote for Start," he said on CBS's Face the Nation, "until I hear from the Russians that they understand we can develop four stages of missile defense, and if we do, they won't withdraw from the treaty."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.