As New START heads toward Senate ratification on Wednesday, some in Washington are stunned by the split in the Republican ranks that will allow Democrats to amass over 70 votes in favor of the treaty, splitting off more Republican senators than on any major legislation since Barack Obama became president.
"Republican opposition to New START is collapsing," the National Review's Rich Lowey wrote Tuesday, sounding the alarm. He called the final vote tally coming on Wednesday afternoon a "dismaying rout."
But the GOP leadership, which will vote against the nuclear reductions treaty, said that it did not press its members to oppose New START as a matter of party loyalty. They knew that there were two groups inside the Republican caucus on New START, and their strategy focused more on gaining concessions and being involved in the process than taking a principled stance against the agreement.
There were always those in the GOP who were leaning toward supporting the treaty, including Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Bob Bennett (R-UT), and George Voinovich (R-OH). And there were always those who were never going to support the treaty, including James Inhofe (R-OK), Jim DeMint (R-SC), Kit Bond (R-MO), and others. In the middle, there were also fence-sitters such as Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who appeared willing to go either way on the treaty depending on how the debate played out.
And then there was Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the anointed GOP leader and lead negotiator on New START, who held his true feelings close to his chest throughout the often excruciating process. "If I announce for or against the treaty at this point, nobody would listen to me," he said on Dec. 15.
The myth of a "collapse" was created by the fact that almost no Republican senators would reveal their positions on New START until the final vote was imminent, except for supporter Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN). The seemingly unified GOP stance on the treaty for most of the autumn and the decision to totally defer to Kyl was a negotiating strategy -- one that actually paid off in the end, to the tune of $84 billion dollars, which the Obama administration promised for nuclear modernization. That's a relative victory, even though many will call the treaty's ratification a defeat for the GOP.
Several GOP senators openly admitted this week that, although Kyl and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) opposed ratifying the treaty this year, they didn't twist arms or apply pressure to their rank and file members. The leadership tried to persuade Senate Republicans, but ultimately released them to vote as they wished.
"We haven't said to Republicans that as a matter of party allegiance you should not vote for the New START treaty," said Senate GOP leadership member Lamar Alexander, (R-TN), who announced his support for New START Tuesday. "After all, the last six Secretaries of State have endorsed it."
"Members who had publicly supported or opposed the bill didn't get a hard push. That's not at all unusual. Other members were contacted," a GOP leadership aide told The Cable.
Meanwhile, the administration aggressively lobbied over a dozen Senate Republicans. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and officials all the way down the line were calling and meeting with senators over the final days and weeks. They offered sweeteners to senators on the fence, and rounded up sometimes reluctant GOP heavyweights, such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to provide Republicans with political cover for supporting the treaty.
"I don't think of it as breaking with the party. I studied the treaty, it's the right thing for our country," Alexander said.
Even the treaty's staunchest opponents in the Senate admitted that there was never unified opposition to the treaty in the GOP and the main complaint was over the process, which ultimately did not win the day.
"They main thing that the Republicans were for in the beginning was that we should not be doing this during the lame duck session," said Inhofe. "There were some who then thought it was imminent that it was going to be voted on, so they started peeling off. I would prefer that they not have. I appealed to each one, ‘fine you can support it, but let's at least do it next year."
So what about the administration's painstaking effort to woo Kyl and defer to his demands for delay, right up until Biden decided to throw him under the bus? Did they waste valuable time and energy or did that tactic pay off in the end?
Lugar had said for months that Kyl and GOP leadership was stalling on the treaty, and that the Democrats should just call their bluff and force the vote.
"I'm advising that the treaty should come on the floor so people will have to vote aye or nay [even if there's no deal]," he said Nov. 17. "I think when it finally comes down to it, we have sufficient number or senators who do have a sense of our national security. This is the time, this is the priority. Do it."
Lugar seems to have been right. But on Tuesday, he graciously argued that that the administration's strategy to accommodate Kyl as much as possible -- right up until they decided not to -- was a smart one.
"Whatever I might have advised, it was simply best that we moved as we have, diplomatically, people have had their say, and we are where we are," Lugar said Tuesday.
As the treaty speeds toward ratification, the biggest question that remains is: If the treaty ratification had been delayed until next year, would Kyl then have supported it? Was he ultimately trying to delay forever or was there really some amount of consultation and concessions that would have gotten him to vote yes?
Whether or not Kyl's vote was ultimately winnable will simply never be known for sure. But in the end, Kyl's efforts resulted in the administration promising over $84 billion for modernization of the nuclear stockpile and nuclear labs. "At least Jon Kyl was able to get more money for modernization and that letter from President Obama making assurances on missile defense," Lowry wrote.
And why did the argument to delay -- made by McConnell, Kyl, Inhofe, McCain, Graham, and others -- fail to convince the almost dozen Senate Republicans who will vote for New START?
Samuel Charap, fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the ordeal should be a lesson in tactics. "On initiatives that have clear bipartisan support, hardball works," he said.
Inhofe had a different take on why his argument didn't win the day. "Because we're just not that persuasive," he said.