Three years after the war between Russian and Georgia, the two countries have started a process to discuss Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization, top White House officials said. However, the U.S. government is not involved in those discussions.
Russia's bid to join the WTO this year will be at the top of the agenda when Vice President Joseph Biden travels to Moscow next week. The Obama administration strongly supports Russia's entry and sees U.S. assistance in that regard as part of the reset of U.S.-Russia relations. But Georgia, a WTO member, can single-handedly thwart Russia's accession. And while the White House sees some progress between the two foes, they don't want to be any part of that conversation.
"We have worked very closely with our Russian counterparts... to help them in the multilateral process so they can meet their goal of joining the WTO this year," NSC Senior Director for Russia Michael McFaul told reporters on a conference call Friday.
Responding to a question from The Cable, McFaul acknowledged that Russia cannot join the WTO unless Georgia agreed but said he saw movement on that front.
"There are definitely issues remaining between Russia and Georgia regarding trade relations that have to be addressed," he said. "There is a process underway. I don't want to prejudge it because we're not involved in it."
But McFaul was firm that the United States would not insert itself into the effort to help Russia and Georgia come to an agreement on the issue.
"We're not going to do that," he said. "At the end of the day this is a bilateral issue, not a trilateral issue."
Some insiders believe that this message from the Obama administration is meant to push both the Russian and Georgian governments to make a deal on WTO without depending on U.S. incentives or pressures to get it done. Regardless, McFaul said that he believed Georgia was willing to limit the discussions to "deal specifically with the economic and trade issues involved and not make it into a larger debate."
So what does Georgia want from Russia? Georgian Prime Minister Nika Gilauri spelled it out in an exclusive interview with The Cable.
"Georgia's support to Russia's WTO membership is conditional. The precondition is fulfillment of obligation taken by Russia in our bilateral accession protocol in 2004 and solving issues of customs administration on the Georgian-Russian border," he said. "Unregulated illegal trade as it takes place now is counter WTO rules. Russia should become member of this rules-based organization but only if it respects trade rules."
Of course, one huge problem is how to define the "Georgian-Russian border." If you are Georgia, that includes the borders between Russia and the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it considers breakaway republics.
When Biden meets with Russian leaders next week, he can tell them that the administration is intent on repealing trade restrictions under the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was imposed in 1974 to pressure the Soviet Union to allow Jewish emigration.
"We plan to terminate the application of Jackson-Vanik in the near future," McFaul said.
However, lifting the law requires the support of Congress, so the White House can't count on it being done right away. "It's not something the White House can't simply press a button and have it done," added Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken.
Biden will arrive in Russia on March 9. He will stop by the U.S. embassy for lunch with U.S. business leaders, and then take those businessmen on a tour of Skolkovo, Russia's new "Silicon Valley." That evening he'll meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. On March 10, Biden will meet with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, then with civil society leaders, and then give a speech at Moscow University.
After Russia's WTO bid, the top agenda item for Biden in Russia will be cooperation on missile defense. The United States has been talking to Russia about missile defense cooperation for a long time, but most in Washington are skeptical that it will ever be possible to satisfy's Russia's objections to U.S. missile defense in Europe.
"We are on the verge of trying to take an issue that used to be extremely contentious... and to try to make it an area of cooperation," said McFaul. "Without some sort of cooperation on missile defense, it will be difficult" to make progress on further reductions of nuclear stockpiles in Europe, he said.
Several reporters on the call asked McFaul and Blinken what Biden's message would be to the Russian government on the international response to the bloodshed in Libya.
"We don't want to address Libya specific questions on this call," Blinken said.
Four Republican senators are calling on the Obama administration to place a sensitive missile defense-related radar site in Georgia, rather than in Turkey, as is currently planned.
"We believe that the U.S. should deploy the most effective missile defenses possible -- in partnership with our allies -- that provide for the protection of the U.S. homeland, our deployed forces, and our allies," began a Feb. 3 letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates signed by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), James Risch (R-ID), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and James Inhofe (R-OK).
The senators are responding to statements from the Turkish government that it would only agree to host the new radar, known as TPY-2, if the United States agrees not to share with Israel any of the information gathered by the radar site, which is part of a NATO system discussed at the recent Lisbon summit. Turkey also wants command and control over the radar and wants NATO to remove any references to Iran as the threat targeted by the missile shield.
For all these reasons, the senators think Georgia would be a better option.
"We believe that the Republic of Georgia's geographic location would make it an ideal site for a missile defense radar aimed at Iran, and would offer clear advantages for the protection of the United States from a long range missile as compared to Turkey," the senators wrote. "What's more, the Republic of Georgia should be a significant partner for future defense cooperation with the U.S."
The senators asked Gates to tell them if Georgia was under consideration as a possible host for the radar site and, if not, what other alternatives the Pentagon is considering.
The prospects of NATO or the Obama administration actually placing a missile defense radar site in Georgia are slim, considering that Georgia is not in NATO and that the consequences for U.S. -Russia and NATO-Russia relations could be devastating.
But the letter is a sure sign that the new Congress is prepared to ramp up its advocacy of restoring defense cooperation with Georgia, which has slowed to a crawl since the 2008 Russian invasion. Other senators who are calling for more military support and cooperation for Georgia include John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Richard Lugar (R-IN), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"The United States, under substantial Russian diplomatic pressure, has paused the transfer of lethal military articles to Georgia, and no U.S. assistance since the war has been directly provided to the Georgian Ministry of Defense," Lugar wrote in a December 2009 report. "Consequently, Georgia lacks basic capacity for territorial defense."
President Barack Obama signed the New START nuclear reductions pact with Russia today at the White House, but no remarks were made and no reporters were allowed into the room.
The White House allowed only still photographs of the signing ceremony, which was attended by Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Richard Lugar (R-IN), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Thad Cochran (R-MS), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Bob Casey (D-PA), Scott Brown (R-MA), and Mike Johanns (R-NE) were invited, but unable to attend.
The private signing ceremony stood in stark contrast to the deluge of high-level publicity the administration gave to the drive to ratify New START, which included press events, speeches, and the like by everybody from President Obama on down through his administration. The White House did not respond to a question about whether the ceremony was closed because of the ongoing crisis in Egypt, but the White House Correspondents Association believes it was only the latest White House maneuver to keep senior officials away from the press as Egypt events unfold.
The WHCA wrote to spokesman Robert Gibbs on Wednesday to complain about the decision.
"On behalf of the White House Correspondents Association we are writing to protest in the strongest possible terms the White House's decision to close the President's Cabinet meeting on Tuesday and his signing of the START Treaty today to the full press pool," the WHCA Board wrote. "The START treaty was held up as one of the President's most important foreign policy priorities for almost a year dating back to the trip to Prague last spring."
The White House press corps, which has had a rocky relationship with Gibbs for a long time, sees this as the latest example of the White House failing to provide the media with regular access to officials and information since the beginning of the Egypt crisis.
"Prior to the President's statement Tuesday night, the press corps had not received a substantive update from the White House all day on the situation in Egypt. In addition, the press corps did not have an on-camera briefing, or an off-camera gaggle, with you yesterday to ask the White House about its decision-making process during this major foreign policy crisis," the WHCA board wrote. "Now for two straight days the full press pool is being shut out of events that have typically been open and provided opportunities [to] try to ask the President a question."
Clinton will exchange the articles of ratification for New START with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Feb. 5 in Munich, after which the treaty will officially enter into force.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is in town for the Richard Holbrooke memorial today at the Kennedy Center, honored Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) on Wednesday night for his support of Georgia following their 2008 war with Russia.
In a dinner and ceremony held at the Georgetown Club, Saakashvili awarded Lieberman the Saint George's Victory Order, which is awarded to individuals who have significantly contributed to victorious battles. Previous American recipients include Holbrooke, President George W. Bush, and then Senator Joe Biden.
Lieberman flew to Georgia in August 2008 just a few days after the Russian-Georgian ceasefire was reached, together with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). They were both involved in the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). McCain, who famously declared, "We are all Georgians," was awarded the Order of the National Hero of Georgia in 2008.
In his remarks on Wednesday, Lieberman spoke about the continuing bond between the U.S. and Georgia and called for a deepening defense partnership. He also emphasized the importance of continuing democratic reform in Georgia in order to advance its transatlantic future.
"Every step that Georgia takes towards greater democracy and rule of law is also a step towards greater security," he said.
Lieberman also spoke about the role Georgian troops are playing in Afghanistan, and thanked Saakashvili and his government for the service and sacrifice of Georgia's military alongside U.S. troops.
But Lieberman didn't receive a gold-plated revolver recovered from a Russian soldier, as McCain did.
Also in attendance at the dinner were Georgian ambassador to the U.S. Batu Kutelia, Georgian minister of economy and development Vera Kobalia, and Raphael Glucksmann, one of Saakashvili's closest advisors and son of French philosopher Andre Glucksmann.
Lieberman brought his neighbors and their son to the dinner. Also Ken Wollack, president of National Democratic Institute, Steve Nix, regional director of Eurasia for International Republican Institute, and Orion Strategies' Randy Scheunemann attended.
The New START ratification drive is over, but the post-game maneuvering has just begun and each stakeholder is putting out their own message about the treaty's passage last week in an attempt to set the tone of the arms control debate going forward.
The first question open for discussion is whether the vote on the treaty -- 71 to 26, with 13 Republicans voting yes -- is a strong bipartisan show of support for arms control or a weak instance of a treaty barely passing despite a large, entrenched anti-arms control constituency in the Senate.
"We had a very strong result yesterday, with 71 senators voting in favor of the treaty, and that was resoundingly from both parties," New START's chief negotiator Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemeoller said Dec. 23. "We had 26 nays, and three senators not voting. So a very good result, from our perspective, and the culmination of a very thorough process, working with the Senate since mid-May."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), said the vote was extremely bipartisan, at least in this political environment.
"I would say to you that in today's Senate, 70 votes is yesterday's 95," Kerry said after the cloture vote to end debate on the treaty.
But the vote was also seen another way.
"26 Senators opposed the treaty -- the most significant opposition to a ratified treaty in decades -- because the Senate failed to address those flaws," read a post-vote e-mail sent out by Heritage Action for America, the lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation which tried to build grassroots momentum against New START and attacked GOP Senators who were thinking about voting yes.
Gottemeoller admitted that this block of GOP senators, which included Senate leaders Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), John McCain (R-AZ), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), could stay intact if the administration decides to enter into another congressional arms control debate.
"Now, clearly, there are members of the Senate who are not keen on further arms control measures. That's always been the case," she said. "There has always been a block of opponents, historically, to nuclear arms reduction and control in the Senate. That's part of a healthy debate; it's part of a healthy process. I don't see that as a major, major issue."
But it certainly could be a major issue as the 2012 presidential race approaches. The Heritage e-mail notes correctly that prospective GOP candidates Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, John Thune, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin all were opposed to New START.
The second major post-ratification question is whether the changes the Senate made to the Resolution of Ratification (ROR) to New START represent a victory for the treaty's detractors and whether they will have real policy implications as the treaty goes into effect.
The Republican leadership is already arguing that the promises Obama and Democrats agreed to, as codified in the amendments to the ROR, represent wins for the pro-missile defense and anti-arms control communities.
"President Obama entered office promising to rid the world of nuclear weapons and drastically cut US missile defense capabilities, as evidenced by his Prague speech and first budget submission to the Congress cutting the missile defense program by $1.4 billion," read a GOP memo circulated on Capitol Hill just after the final vote. "Now, at the end of his first Congress, in the course of completing his signature foreign policy achievement, President Obama has committed his Administration to a wholesale modernization of the US nuclear complex, including improvements to warheads, facility infrastructure, and all delivery vehicles of the triad."
The memo refers to four amendments that were unanimously approved just before the final treaty vote. They express the U.S. commitment to improving missile defenses around the world quantitatively and qualitatively, pledges that U.S. missile defense deployment does not constitute a basis for Russian withdrawal from the treaty, and commits the U.S. to maintaining all three legs of the nuclear delivery triad: launchers, submarines, and heavy bombers.
The administration will argue that the language does not change the text of the treaty, but the Russian Duma is apparently concerned enough that it has delayed final ratification on their end until at least January, so that there is time to review and interpret the Senate modifications.
Even with the amended language, McCain couldn't bring himself to sign on. He decided to vote no in the final hours of the debate because his even-stronger amendment on missile defense was never accepted by Kerry and the administration.
And, for his part, McCain is painting the ratification of New START as worrisome turn of events.
"Now that it has passed, I remain concerned that the Treaty in its final form could still be used by Russia to limit the development, deployment, and improvement of U.S. missile defense. I will work tirelessly in the years ahead to ensure that this never happens," he said after the vote.
What seems clear is that now that the Senate has completed its first arms control debate in over 10 years, both sides are now more educated and attuned to the issues involved and have a better idea of what their mission is on arms control going forward.
For arms control advocates, the goal is to build on the momentum from New START to push the administration to bring up the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prevents the testing of nuclear weapons, and was signed by the United States, but never ratified. It failed to pass the Senate in October 1999.
"The New START vote suggests it is possible for the Senate to reconsider and come together around the CTBT," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "The case for the Test Ban Treaty is even stronger than it was when the Senate last reviewed the treaty a decade ago. It is clear that the United States no longer needs or wants nuclear testing and that further nuclear testing could help others improve their nuclear capabilities."
But the GOP leadership in the Senate is confident the administration won't be so willing to try and move any arms control treaties that don't already have bipartisan support.
"After jamming New START through the Senate in a lame duck session where the Senate was concomitantly attending to a variety of other duties, and consequently achieving the lowest vote count ever for a ratified major arms control treaty, the Obama Administration is probably looking around wondering what is next for its nonproliferation agenda, now that CTBT is effectively off the table," the GOP memo said. "It would appear incumbent upon Republicans to provide the Administration with that agenda, beginning with a focus on the true nonproliferation threats of Iran and North Korea."
The Senate approved a resolution of ratification for New START on Wednesday afternoon by a 71-26 vote, signaling the Barack Obama administration's first -- and perhaps last -- major arms control legislative victory for the foreseeable future.
"I want to commend the Senators from both parties who worked to achieve this positive outcome for our country," said Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher in a statement from her hospital bed, where she is recovering from cancer surgery. "The New START treaty is another step that will help move the United States and Russia toward a world of mutual assured stability. This treaty will enhance cooperation with Russia and reinforce the global nuclear nonproliferation regime."
Vice President Joseph Biden presided over the vote. Immediately following the vote, a group of supporters gathered in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting room in the Capitol to cheer their success. In attendance were Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemeoller, Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Richard Verma, Biden's lead New START negotiator Brian McKeon, and committee leaders John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN).
In the end, 13 Senate Republicans voted in favor for the treaty: Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Bob Bennett (R-UT), Scott Brown (R-MA), Susan Collins (R-ME), Thad Cochran (R-MS), Bob Corker (R-TN), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Judd Gregg (R-NH), George Voinovich (R-OH), Mike Johanns (R-NE), and Lugar.
All the other Senate Republicans voted no, except for Kit Bond (R-MO), Sam Brownback (R-KS), and Jim Bunning (R-KY), all of whom missed the vote and are retiring from the Senate.
Just before the vote, in the throes of impending defeat, the GOP leader on New START, Jon Kyl (R-AZ), decried the process used to complete the treaty and promised that the Senate would not be a hospitable environment for arms control treaties next year.
"We better come to an understanding, either we are going to be able to make some changes, or otherwise we might as well avoid the process altogether because it's just a waste of time," Kyl said after several attempts to add "treaty killer" amendments to the agreement failed.
Kyl downplayed the impact of the treaty he had worked for months to change, saying that the whole exercise was lost in Cold War thinking and that the more pressing threats were from rogue states like North Korea and Iran.
"I suggest we move away from the distraction of an agreement like this and move toward a debate over some of the real challenges," Kyl said. He added that a positive result of the debate was that there won't be any more treaties "for a while."
Kyl was not the only one to predict that the administration won't be eager to engage in another protracted debate over an arms control treaty next year.
"Given that this was a less than overwhelming vote, I think the next Congress would be very skeptical," said Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) in an interview.... And I think the new members who are freshly elected and have a fresh perspective, will be more focused on Iran than Russia."
Since last year, administration officials have been pledging that New START would be only the first in a long line of arms control items they hoped to move through Congress before the 2012 elections. Next up was to be the Congressional Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), then perhaps the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, followed by the successor to New START, which has not yet been negotiated.
Is that still the plan? Kerry said yes, but don't hold your breath.
"I said months ago to the president that the test ban treaty in the current atmosphere is a very, very difficult process. A whole lot of educating has to go on," Kerry said after the New START vote. "I think it's way too early to start to scope out what will or will not happen with the CTBT. We have a lot of prep work to do before we contemplate that."
Lugar said the idea that New START was the low hanging fruit that could be easily disposed of on the path to more arms control items was never right and that was abundantly clear now.
"My own counsel [from the beginning] was that you have no idea how difficult it's going to be to gain verification of New START. This was not going to be simply ‘chapter one,' conference by April 15th and then three months later you try something else," Lugar said. "I think they are believers now."
When that debate over CTBT eventually happens, Kyl could be joined in his opposition by several new GOP senators, and perhaps also Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), who the administration was trying to work with on New START up until the very last moment. McCain ultimately voted no.
"The New START Treaty was supposed to deal solely with strategic offensive weapons. It does not. It re-establishes an old and outdated linkage between nuclear arms and missile defense, which is no longer suited to the threats of today's world," McCain said in a statement. "I remain concerned that the Treaty in its final form could still be used by Russia to limit the development, deployment, and improvement of U.S. missile defense. I will work tirelessly in the years ahead to ensure that this never happens."
The Cable asked Lugar what he thought about McCain's final decision to vote against New START.
"Each one of us had to make up our own minds," Lugar said. "And as public figures, we'll have to answer for what we did."
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.
South Carolina GOP Sen. Jim DeMint repeated today his claim that "millions of Americans" are "outraged" that Congress would dare work on major legislation, namely New START, this close to Christmas. He previously called it "sacrilegious."
"Don't tell me about Christmas. I understand Christmas," Vice President Joe Biden responded in a Dec. 16 interview. "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. National security's at stake. Act."
Less than a week later, DeMint is back at it again. "It's clear with this treaty that [the administration is] trying to cram something down the throats of the American people under the cover of Christmas," DeMint said in a press conference on Tuesday. "They're not looking at politics right now, they're celebrating their holy Christmas holiday, and the fact that we're doing this under the cover of Christmas...is something to be outraged about."
Here at the Capitol building, there's some confusion about exactly how long before Dec. 25 Congress should stop working on major bills (so as not to offend the "millions" of outraged Christians DeMint is standing up for), and why only Christian holidays should be protected from major legislation.
In an exclusive interview with The Cable, DeMint explained what commentators have coined his drive to combat the "war on Christmas vacation." Here's the transcript:
JR: Senator DeMint, exactly how long before Christmas Day is the period during which the American people don't want Congress to work on major legislation, in your view?
JD: It has nothing to do with us not being willing to work. For the [continuing resolution] I'm willing to work right through New Year's. It's just, trying to do [New START] under the cover of people being distracted. We've worked with a lot of people on the outside and around the country who feel this is a bad way to do a bad treaty. People are distracted.
JR: How long are people distracted before Christmas? Is it the entire month of December, or what?
JD: The whole lame duck [session] to me is an illegitimate process and the intent to do whatever is the nation's business that has to be done, such as fund the government. But to pass major legislation during the lame duck is not the intent. People who are here, the voters have changed a lot of them. Doing it during Christmas is just one piece of it. The big issue is using the lame duck of unaccountable senators to ram through a major arms control treaty. That's the issue.
JR: Why invoke only the Christian holidays? Congress works on major legislation during Jewish holidays, Muslim holidays. You never said anything about that, right? Aren't Jews distracted during Hannukah?
JD: Sure, we normally take off for Jewish holidays. It's more of the distraction of the end of the year. I'm not trying to make it just an issue of Christmas. But it is obvious that Americans do not expect their unelected officials to come in and make major decisions when we're not supposed to be here and they're not paying attention.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Everyone here on Capitol Hill is beginning to see the ratification of New START as increasingly inevitable -- everyone, that is, except for Sen. Jon Kyl.
As the Senate headed toward a vote to close debate on the treaty, more and more GOP senators came out in favor of the agreement, pushing the number of Republicans supporting New START past the nine-vote threshold that would ensure the necessary two-thirds majority for ratification of the treaty in the final vote coming Thursday.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) was the latest Republican to publicly declare his support.
"I will vote to ratify the New Start treaty between the United States and Russia because it leaves our country with enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker to kingdom come, and because the president has committed to an $85 billion ten-year plan to make sure that those weapons work," he said on the Senate floor Tuesday morning. "I will vote for the treaty because it allows for inspection of Russian warheads and because our military leaders say it does nothing to interfere with the development of a missile defense system. I will vote for the treaty because the last six Republican secretaries of state support its ratification. In short, I'm convinced that Americans are safer and more secure with the New Start Treaty than without it."
GOP Sens. Johnny Isaakson (R-GA) and Bob Bennett (R-UT) also expressed their support for New START Tuesday and Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) was expected to follow suit this afternoon.
Add to those votes the support already expressed by Sens. Richard Lugar (R-IN), Susan Collins (R-ME), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Scott Brown (R-MA), and George Voinovoich (R-OH), and that's enough votes to ratify START. All Senate Democrats are expected to vote in favor of the treaty.
The current fence-sitters include Sens. Thad Cochran (R-MS), Judd Gregg (R-NH), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and John McCain (R-AZ), some or all of whom could ultimately vote yes.
Republican senators who are definitely voting no include Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), James Risch (R-ID), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Jim DeMint (R-SC), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Kit Bond (R-MO), and Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who led a press conference Tuesday morning to declare that he was not giving up on his drive to push the consideration of the treaty until next year.
"I honestly don't know what all of my colleagues are going to do," Kyl said. "We believe this process has not enabled us to consider this treaty in the serious way it should have been considered. I hope a lot of our colleagues would agree with that."
Graham, who was signaling he might vote for the treat only a week ago, was the most indignant senator in complaining about the process Democrats have used to move the treaty during the lame duck session of Congress.
He also railed against his own party for the way they have handled the treaty and acted throughout the lame duck session.
"I stand here very disappointed in the fact that our lead negotiator on the Republican side... basically is going to have his work product ignored and the treaty jammed through in the lame duck. How as Republicans we justify that I do not know," Graham said. "To Senator Kyl, I want to apologize to you for the way you've been treated by your colleagues."
Graham kept talking about Kyl's offer to hold the debate over nine days in late January and early February, with an agreement to vote in early February. As far as the administration is concerned, that offer is no longer on the table.
DeMint continued to accuse the Democrats of waging a war against Christmas vacation, as he communicated what he saw as the "outrage" of "millions of Americans" over the Democrats' actions.
"It's clear with this treaty that [the administration is] trying to cram something down the throats of the American people under the cover of Christmas," DeMint said. "They're not looking at politics right now, they're celebrating their holy Christmas holiday, and the fact that we're doing this under the cover of Christmas... is something to be outraged about."
More and more Republican senators came out in support for New START Monday afternoon, as the treaty moved closer to ratification after months of negotiations and days of debate.
"I believe we have the votes to ratify this treaty," said Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), after emerging from a two and a half hour closed session, during which senators discussed both unclassified and classified issues related to New START.
Of course, Kerry has been predicting that New START will be ratified for weeks. But multiple GOP senators emerged from the meeting echoing Kerry's confidence and some even took the opportunity to announce their support for the treaty.
"I've done my due diligence and I'm going to be voting for cloture and supporting the New START treaty," said Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA). "I believe it's something that's important for our country and I believe it's a good move forward to deal with our national security issues."
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) wouldn't go quite that far, but said he was at the same place he was when he voted for the treaty during committee consideration on Sept. 16. He said it would take some new problem to keep him from voting yes.
"The T's are being crossed and the I's are being dotted. Something could change but I don't know what that would be," Corker said. "We all talk about listening to our military leaders... if you go from A to Z there's a lot of support for this treaty and I don't think they would support it if they didn't think it was in the best interests of our country.:
Two more GOP senators also outwardly expressed their support for New START Monday, The Hill reported. "I'm leaning toward supporting the treaty but I want to makes sure our side gets a fair hearing," Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) said. Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) said, "I support it."
In addition to those four, Sens. Richard Lugar (R-ID), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and Susan Collins (R-ME) also have pledged their support. That makes 7 GOP yes votes; treaty supporters will need 9 Republican senators to reach the two-thirds majority necessary to pass the treaty. The candidates for those two votes include Sens. Thad Cochran (R-MS), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Bob Bennett (R-UT), Johnny Isaakson (R-GA), Mark Kirk (R-IL) and John McCain (R-AZ).
Meanwhile, senior administration officials have been working the phones in support of the treaty. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden have both made calls to several GOP senators over the last few days on the issue.
There will be a vote on closing debate Tuesday, which will need and likely get 60 votes to pass. After that, the final vote could come Wednesday evening or Thursday morning. The Senate continued to work on two amendments -- known as "treaty killers," as they would have required re-negotiation of the treaty with the Russians -- brought by Sens. James Inhofe (R-OK) and John Thune (R-SD). Both failed 33-64, and another amendment to the treaty on tactical nuclear weapons brought by Sen. George LeMieux (R-FL) failed 35-62.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that New START "cannot be opened up and become the subject of new negotiations."
Meanwhile, the behind-the-scenes action Monday had turned to amendments to the "Resolution of Ratification," which can be amended without sending the treaty back into negotiations with the Russian government.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) filed one of these amendments (PDF) Monday, along with Kirk and Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Their amendment would codify a pledge to complete the current four-stage plan for developing a missile defense system, preserve the option of going back to the George W. Bush administration scheme for European missile defense sites, state that U.S. missile defense plans are not grounds for Russian withdrawal from the treaty, and pledge not to share any U.S. missile telemetry data with Russia.
Kirk has also filed an amendment to the McCain amendment (PDF), obtained by The Cable, that would expand the ban on telemetry data to include all the other kinds of data, including tracking, targeting, and common operational picture data.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) is said to be preparing another amendment to the ROR, and others were floating around Monday evening as well. Kerry and Kyl were working Monday evening to secure a time agreement to allow a couple more amendments to the treaty and then move to amendments on the ROR.
Kyl continued to lead the GOP side of the debate Wednesday evening and was seen chatting with Kerry after the meeting about the road ahead. Kerry said he was open to including Kyl's ideas for what can be done to the ROR, as everyone here at the Capitol starts to contemplate the end game and the treaty's eventual completion.
"We were just having a conversation with Senator Kyl. There may be some additional things we can incorporate [before the final vote]," Kerry said.
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."
Supporters of the New Start treaty staved off an attempt by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and John Barrasso (R-WY) to attach a "treaty killing" amendment on the Senate floor Saturday afternoon. Next up is an amendment by Sen. James Risch (R-ID) on linkage between strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.
The McCain-Barrasso amendment would have removed language from the treaty's preamble that acknowledged the relationship between offensive and defensive nuclear capabilities. They argued the language could constrain U.S. missile defense plans. However, Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Carl Levin (D-MI) maintained that the language stated an obvious fact and, in any case, was not legally binding. The amendment failed 37 to 59.
"The Russian government could use the treaty in its current form as a tool to place political pressure on the U.S. to limit its missile defense system," said McCain.
"All it does is to state a truism, a fact, a reality. There is a relationship between strategic offensive and defensive capabilities," said Kerry.
Kerry succeeded in characterizing the amendment as a "treaty killer," because any changes to the treaty or the preamble would require a new round of negotiations with the Russians.
"Make no mistake, this becomes a treaty killer," Kerry said. "Can we deal with this issue without it becoming a treaty killer? Yes. We've already dealt with it. It's in the resolution of ratification."
Kerry was referring to the Senate's resolution of ratification, which will be the subject of another debate after the treaty itself is considered. The resolution of ratification, which was primarily authored by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), expresses the Senate's opinion on the meaning of the treaty, and can be amended without stopping the treaty from going into effect right away. It is legally binding but does not require the treaty to be renegotiated with Russia because it simply gives the Senate's views on the pact.
As part of the debate, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) read quotes on the Senate floor from two separate articles that appeared on the Foreign Policy website, including one by FP Passport editor Joshua Keating and another by your humble Cable guy, and entered them into the Congressional Record. (Thanks Sen. Kyl!)
Before the Senate gives an up or down vote on New START, treaty supporters will have to deal with at least one more "treaty killer" amendment. The next one deals with the issue of tactical nuclear weapons and is being brought to the floor by Risch.
Risch, a member of the Foreign Relations committee, has been active on New START and almost derailed the committee consideration of the treaty over an undisclosed intelligence issue. His amendment would insert the following paragraph into the treaty's preamble:
Acknowledging there is an interrelationship between non-strategic and strategic offensive arms, that as the number of strategic offensive arms is reduced this relationship becomes more pronounced and requires an even greater need for transparency and accountability, and that the disparity between the Parties' arsenals could undermine predictability and stability.
Risch's office circulated a fact sheet about the amendment that was also endorsed by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX), James Inhofe (R-OK), and George Lemieux (R-FL), which explains the senators' concern that tactical nuclear weapons are not covered by the treaty, only strategic nuclear weapons.
"This amendment seeks to correct this flaw in the treaty, by acknowledging the interrelationship between offensive non-strategic (tactical nuclear) weapons and strategic range weapons," the fact sheet reads. "It also calls for increased transparency and accountability of these weapons and recognizes that these weapons can undermine stability."
The GOP senators also feel that the administration is misrepresenting the findings of the Perry-Schlesinger Congressional Strategic Posture Commission by saying that the commission recommended deferring negotiations on tactical nukes. Here's what former Defense Secretary William Perry said about the issue in his Senate testimony in April.
"The focus of this treaty is on deployed warheads and it does not attempt to count or control non-deployed warheads. This continues in the tradition of prior arms control treaties. I would hope to see non-deployed and tactical systems included in future negotiations, but the absence of these systems should not detract from the merits of this treaty and the further advances in arms control which it represents."
Many Senators believe that as the Perry-Schlesinger report points out in multiple places that there is an interrelationship between tactical and strategic weapons. Other senators feel Obama removed tactical nukes from the negotiating table so quickly in the summer of 2009 that he removed a point of leverage over the Russians.
The Obama administration has said that it would like to pursue reductions in tactical weapons with Russia in a future arms control treaty, what some insiders call the "follow on to the follow on." But considering how difficult it has been finishing New START, there's no telling when that might happen.
The Risch amendment is expected to receive a vote on the Senate floor Sunday afternoon. As for the final vote on the treaty? Nobody knows when that might occur. It depends on how many of the rumored 50 to 70 amendments the GOP has been preparing will actually reach the floor.
Kerry has said he will cut off debate and call for the final vote when he believes the Republicans are just attempting to stall the treaty's progress. McCain told him he can't say how long it will take to air all the GOP concerns.
"We will not have a time agreement on this side until all members have had a chance to express their views on this issue," McCain said on the floor, adding, "I promise I'm not trying to just drag this out."
Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher is recovering after she underwent a successful cancer surgery earlier this month and hopes to return home by Christmas, according to a State Department official in her office.
"Undersecretary Tauscher underwent surgery to treat esophageal cancer earlier this month and her doctors consider the surgery a success," the official told The Cable. "She and her family appreciate everyone's support and prayers."
If the Senate is able to ratify New START by Christmas, as Vice President Joseph Biden is promising, that would be a nice coming home present for Tauscher, who has been a key member of the Obama administration team involved in the negotiation and ratification of the treaty. Tauscher was diagnosed with an early stage of cancer of the esophagus in July. Since then, she underwent full courses of radiation and chemotherapy before having surgery to remove the tumor in early December.
A former Congresswoman from California, Tauscher influenced the arms control debate and led efforts to revamp ballistic missile defense plans at the State Department and as chairwoman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee.
A close friend of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Tauscher received credit for restaffing, reorganizing, and revamping State's arms control bureau which Obama administration officials say was neglected during the George W. Bush administration.
Meanwhile, her chief of staff Simon Limage has been promoted to deputy assistant secretary of State for nonproliferation programs in the bureau of international security and nonproliferation (ISN). There he will report up to the acting assistant secretary Vann Van Diepen. Limage has worked for Tauscher for 10 years, the last two as her chief of staff in her Congressional office and at State.
Tauscher's new chief of staff will be Wade Boese, who was already working in the arms control bureau as a special assistant. Boese joined the staff in September 2009. He previously spent years at the Arms Control Association and worked for Lee Hamilton on the Strategic Posture Commission.
Best wishes to Tauscher for a full and speedy recovery from all of us here at The Cable.
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."
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.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
The Senate could begin debate over New START nuclear reductions with Russia as early as tonight or tomorrow morning, but already Republican senators have secured a procedural ruling that could make it easier for them to bring up what are being called "treaty killer" amendments.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has decided to bring the New START treaty to the floor in parallel with the Senate's other major obligation this week, passing an overall funding bill to keep the government running, a senate Democratic leadership aide confirmed to The Cable. The treaty has been placed on what's known as the "executive calendar," meaning that the Senate can go back and forth debating both the treaty and the funding bill for the rest of the week, the aide explained.
New START "is on the executive calendar which means they don't need our consent to get on it, nor have they needed it all year," a GOP senate leadership aide told The Cable. "But since the government shuts down on Saturday if we don't pass a funding bill, I would imagine they'll want to turn to funding the government next."
In fact, the plan is to do both at once -- get the ball rolling on New START while also tackling the funding issue -- the Democratic leadership aide confirmed.
Republicans are still divided as to whether there is enough time to debate and ratify the treaty this year, but Senate leadership is moving forward regardless. To prepare for the coming debate, several GOP senators asked the Senate parliamentarian to give an official ruling on whether the preamble to the treaty is open for amendments.
Treaty supporters object to amending the preamble, because any changes would force the treaty to go back to bilateral negotiations with the Russians, which could take months and possibly even scuttle New START entirely.
This is why treaty supporters refer to such amendments as "treaty killers." The negative effect that amendments would have on the process is likely far greater than the effect the amendments would have on the agreement itself.
On Tuesday, the parliamentarian ruled in the GOP's favor, stating that yes, the preamble to the treaty is amendable. We're told that several GOP senators are preparing to try to amend it to take out the language that acknowledges the link between offensive and defensive missile capabilities.
"We have been asked to re-examine the precedent which states that preambles to treaties are not amendable," the Senate parliamentarian stated in his ruling, which was obtained by The Cable.
The parliamentarian ruled that a precedent in Riddick's Senate Procedure guide from May 18, 1998, (noted at footnote 31 in the treaties chapter of Riddick's), which stated that treaty preambles were not amendable, was not correct. Therefore, there's no reason why senators can't try to change the preamble during the floor debate.
"We have found no other authority to support the conclusion that preambles to treaties are not amendable, nor have we heard an argument to support that position," the parliamentarian stated in his ruling. "Unless it can be demonstrated to us that there is in fact valid precedent or convincing logic preventing the Senate from amending preambles to treaties, we will advise from this point forward that preambles to treaties may be amended."
It's no coincidence that the five senators who asked the parliamentarian for the ruling are all GOP senators currently arguing for a delay in treaty consideration until next year. They are Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), John Thune (R-SD), James Risch (R-ID), Jim DeMint (R-SC), and John Barrasso (R-WY).
Kyl is the GOP point man on New START. Thune's state is home to strategic bomber fleets. Risch almost derailed the committee hearing over New START over an undisclosed intelligence concern. DeMint is a staunch treaty opponent and is advocating for a huge expansion of missile defense. And Barrasso actually tried to amend the preamble in committee, but his amendment was ruled out of order by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA). Kerry will have trouble blocking that amendment on the floor if the parliamentarian's ruling is allowed to stand.
Treaty supporters have maintained that the language is not legally binding and does not constrain U.S. missile defense plans. Republicans are planning to try to turn that argument on its head.
"Given the insistence by treaty supporters that the preamble is non-binding and could not be used by Russia to withdraw, one should assume they no longer have any objections to removing the missile defense provisions from the Treaty now that amendments are in order," one senior GOP senate aide said.
What about the substance of the preamble language itself? Here's what it says, exactly:
"Recognizing the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, that this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced, and that current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties."
And here's what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said about that language at the Council on Foreign Relations in May:
"The treaty's preamble does include language acknowledging the relationship between strategic offensive and defensive forces, but this is simply a statement of fact. It does not constrain our missile defense programs in any way. In fact, a similar provision was part of the original START treaty and did not prevent us from developing our missile defenses."
And here's what Senate Armed Services ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) said about the language at a hearing in July:
"We originally were told there would be no references to missile defense in the treaty, and no linkage drawn between offensive and defensive weapons. Then we were told there would be such a reference, but only in the preamble, which of course is not legally binding. However, in the final treaty text -- not just in the preamble, but Article 5 of the treaty itself -- there is a clear, legally-binding limitation on our missile defense options. While this limitation may not be a meaningful one, it is a limitation."
UPDATE: Kyl said Tuesday he still doesn't think there's enough time to complete work on the treaty this year and that he will try to defeat the treaty if it comes up during the lame duck session. "I let the majority leader know that's an issue for a lot of my colleagues," Kyl told reporters Tuesday. "And if he does bring it up, I will work very hard to achieve that result, namely that the treaty fails."
In a one line tweet, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) came out in support of the New START Treaty with Russia Friday.
"Senator Collins announces support for new START treaty," her twitter feed read Friday morning.
In a statement set to released Friday, Collins said the administration had sufficiently addressed her concerns about Russia's tactical nuclear weapons, which are not part of the New START treaty.
"The New START represents a continued effort to achieve mutual and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons," Collins said. "As the Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, I support the President's commitment to reduce not only the number of strategic nuclear weapons through the New START treaty, but also to reduce, in the future, those weapons that are most vulnerable to theft and misuse - and those are tactical nuclear weapons."
That brings the total number of Republican senators who have clearly stated their support for the treaty to two. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) has been working hard to get the treaty ratified for months.
But there are other signs Friday that more and more Republicans are getting ready to vote in favor of the treaty. Sen. John McCain, in a speech at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Friday morning, said he hoped New START could be debated "next week."
"My colleague Senator Jon Kyl is doing a tremendous job working with the administration to resolve the issues associated with nuclear modernization. I've been focusing my efforts on addressing the key concerns relating to missile defense. And I think we are very close," McCain said.
That matches what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told The Cable last week -- but it does not match Kyl's most recent statements. Kyl continues to say that there isn't enough time to debate and ratify the treaty this month, given that the tax issue remains unresolved.
One scenario that would push consideration of New START until next year is that the treaty could be brought up for a cloture vote, and then fail to win enough votes to close off debate. This could occur if many GOP senators are unhappy with their ability to bring up amendments, for example, leading them to vote against cloture even though they support ratification of the treaty.
This possibility would allow the administration to say they tried and were stifled by intransigent Senate Republicans. However, it would be a pyrrhic victory - wasting floor time during the lame duck session, and leaving the treaty to an uncertain fate during the next session of Congress.
So all eyes are on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), the same guy who reluctantly brought the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal to the Senate floor Thursday knowing full well the cloture vote would fail, and Kyl, who the treaty supporters are hoping will finally show his cards.
If Kyl is ultimately determined to not strike an agreement this month, the question is whether the administration's intensive effort to find 8 or 9 GOP votes willing to buck their Senate leadership has paid off. As of right now, they've only got Lugar and Collins for sure.
UPDATE: The other Maine Senator, Olympia Snowe, also came out in support of the treaty Friday, kind of. She said her support for moving the treaty this year was was contingent on allowing "sufficient debate and amendments."
Collins' full statement after the jump:
Now that the Senate has declined to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, the path could be clear for a full-on debate over the New START treaty with Russia, right? Not so fast. A huge fight is brewing on Capitol Hill over the dozens of amendments GOP senators are preparing to bring up during the debate, several of which the administration could consider "treaty killers."
Republicans are preparing to raise several dozen amendments to both the treaty itself and the Senate's resolution on ratification. And, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) unlikely to bring New START to the Senate floor until after the issue of extending the Bush administration tax cuts is resolved, time is running out to set aside the two weeks of floor time Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) says is needed to properly address the treaty.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and the administration have been telling GOP senators that some of their amendments cannot be brought up on the Senate floor because, if adopted, they would force the treaty to go back to the Russians for another round of negotiations. Multiple GOP Senate aides told The Cable that the treaty supporters were calling these amendments "treaty killers."
"There are several dozen amendments kicking around on our side to address problems with the treaty. But, the administration and the SFRC folks will probably label any threatening amendment as a ‘treaty killer,'" said one GOP Senate aide involved in the issue, who felt that using the term is not a substantive argument. "I expect that's how they would try to defeat most of our amendments, though ‘treaty killer' seems to be just code for ‘we don't want to push this with the Russians.'"
The amendments being circulated now cover the whole litany of concerns that GOP senators have raised about New START treaty for months, including missile defense, nuclear modernization, Iran policy, tactical nuclear weapons, and verification of the treaty's provisions.
The one amendment that could really rile up the Russians and force further protracted negotiations on the treaty is one being circulated that would strip the treaty's preamble of language that acknowledges a relationship between offensive and defensive capabilities. The administration has said repeatedly this language doesn't constrain U.S. missile defense plans but many Republicans want to see it gone nonetheless.
GOP senators are already starting to publicly criticize the coming process for debating the treaty and are objecting to any deal that would limit the possibility of amendments.
"Clearly, the New START treaty has very serious implications for U.S. national security, and it would be a mistake for the Senate to consider it in a hasty fashion," Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said Thursday. "When this treaty reaches the Senate floor, the majority should allow open and unhurried consideration. If the treaty's defects can be properly addressed through the amendment process, it would have a better chance of getting bipartisan support."
Meanwhile, the administration and Kerry continue to work behind the scenes with top GOP senators, including Kyl and John McCain (R-AZ). Nobody knows whether they will reach a deal in time, but the longer the negotiations drag on and the longer the tax issue remains unresolved, the dimmer the chances of ratifying New START this year.
The administration may be right that certain amendments would force a renegotiation that could delay the treaty for months or more. Regardless, the angst among GOP offices on Capitol Hill is real -- as is the administration's frustration with Republicans.
Here's a taste of the debate to come. "If the treaty is actually in the national interest of both nations, as the administration claims, then there can be no such thing as a ‘treaty killer' amendment," said one senior GOP aide. "But this is part and parcel of the Administration's failure, since day one, to respect the Senate's role of advice and consent."
President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he had discussed holding a vote on the New START treaty with Russia this year with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and that he expected this to happen.
"I confident that we are going to be able to get the START treaty on the floor, debated and completed before we break for the holidays," Obama said after his bilateral meeting today with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski. "That's not linked to taxes; that's something that on its own merits is supposed to get done, needs to get done."
As of last Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told The Cable that a deal with Republicans to move the treaty this month was close at hand. But if the Senate GOP leader on this issue, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), is close to striking a deal, he is keeping that information to himself.
"There's a lot going on," Kyl told reporters after a meeting Wednesday with Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). "We're trying to make sure that there is adequate time for each of the things that have to be done. And senators don't want to feel like they're being cheated of that adequacy of time. They don't want to be jammed."
Kyl had linked the New START vote to a resolution of the tax debate last week, saying that debate on New START can't go forward until the tax issue was resolved. Kyl has also said that the Senate needs at least two weeks to work on the treaty and address GOP senators' concerns about nuclear modernization, missile defense, and verification.
Meanwhile, virtually everybody who hasn't yet weighed in on the treaty is now chiming in. A group of GOP House members (who can't vote on the pact) sent a letter on Tuesday calling for the treaty to be delayed until next year.
Now, The Cable has learned that House Democrats, led by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), have sent their own letter calling for swift ratification.
Former President George H.W. Bush issued a one line statement Wednesday in support of the treaty. But he declined to say that the treaty should be ratified this year, similar to the stance former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took Tuesday.
"I urge the United States Senate to ratify the START treaty," Bush 41's statement read.
Ever since President Barack Obama took office, his administration has refused to sell military equipment to Georgia. In a newly released WikiLeaks cable, the U.S. ambassador to Russia made the argument that U.S. military support to Georgia is unwise because it would upset the U.S.-Russian "reset."
"A decision to move towards a more robust military relationship with Georgia will imperil our efforts to re-start relations with Russia," read a June 2009 cable signed by U.S. Ambassador John Beyrle. "Our assessment is that if we say ‘yes' to a significant military relationship with Tbilisi, Russia will say ‘no' to any medium-term diminution in tensions, and feel less constrained absent reverting to more active opposition to critical U.S. strategic interests."
The U.S.-Russia reset policy is not as important to Russia as its "absolute" priority of expanding its influence in Eurasia, Beyrle wrote. He said that sending military supplies to Georgia would cause Russia to backtrack on other areas of U.S.-Russia cooperation, including joint action to pressure Iran.
Besides, the Russians don't think that the United States possesses the power to force a resolution to the situation in the disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia has occupied since the end of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Beyrle explained in the leaked cable.
The Obama administration hasn't actually set forth a policy banning weapons sales to Georgia. They simply haven't sold weapons to Georgia and don't plan on doing so. That de facto ban on arms sales has riled some in Washington, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN).
"The United States, under substantial Russian diplomatic pressure, has paused the transfer of lethal military articles to Georgia, and no U.S. assistance since the war has been directly provided to the Georgian Ministry of Defense," Lugar's staff wrote in a December 2009 report. "Consequently, Georgia lacks basic capacity for territorial defense."
Contradicting Lugar, the Beyrle cable argues that arms sales would actually be harmful for Georgian national security, because it increases the likelihood of sparking another war that Georgia would surely lose.
"From our vantage point, a burgeoning military supply relationship with Georgia is more of a liability for Georgia than a benefit," Beyrle wrote. "We recognize that our suggested approach would be deeply dissatisfying to Saakashvili, but we see ... no way to neutralize the advantages of geography, size, and capabilities enjoyed by Russia."
Samual Charap, associate director for the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center of for American Progress, agreed. "Instead of the argument of whether we can fulfill this desire of the Georgian government, we have to step back and say ‘what is the U.S. interest here,'" he said. "There's no such thing as a military balance or a military deterrent in this case."
More broadly, Charap and top administration officials argue that the reset policy with Russia is actually good for Georgia, even if it means that the United States won't sell it weapons.
"I guess the question is: Is Georgia and is the rest of Europe more secure today than they were -- than Europe was when we first got here? And I think our answer is yes," Michael McFaul, senior director for Russia at the National Security Council, said in June.
"The reset protects Georgia because Russia now has a whole lot more to lose," added Charap. "Before, nobody in Moscow was going to think ‘what will they think in Washington,' because they didn't care. Now they care."
Other experts said that while the Beyrle cable reflects just one man's opinion, it fits into a broader pattern of an Obama administration that has ignored Georgia and other parts of central Asia due to a focus on improving U.S.-Russian ties.
"Having a reset policy is fine, but what the administration has not done is create a simultaneous comprehensive policy for the central Asian states," said Alexandros Petersen, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "Right now 100 percent of our Georgia policy is about Russia, where it should be about 25 percent."
Petersen agreed that selling arms to Georgia is not a panacea, but should be combined with other types of assistance, including civil institution building, which is mentioned in Beyrle's cable.
"The Georgians love banging the table and saying give us lots of arms, but they are just as myopic as this cable was," Petersen said. "If you're going to do arms sales, you have to do 10 other things relating to bolstering Georgia."
The cable, by alluding to Russian corruption and heavy handedness in the disputed territories, fits into the larger picture of State Department reporting, as revealed by WikiLeaks, which privately emphasizes Russian misbehavior in Georgia. These cables, including reports on Russian military and intelligence attacks inside Georgia dating back to 2004, go well beyond what U.S. diplomats commented on in public.
Although Beyrle's cable does not represent U.S. official policy, some experts see a White House keen to adopt its candid recommendations.
"As the U.S. ambassador to Russia, naturally he is going to a focus on a better relationship with Russia, so you can't say this necessarily this trickles up to the Obama administration's policy," said Petersen. "But a senior official at State is clearly saying we should throw Georgia under the bus."
ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Now that the Obama administration and congressional Republicans have reached an agreement on extending the Bush-era tax cuts, the attention on Capitol Hill turns to whether there's enough time to debate and vote on the New START treaty with Russia this month. On Tuesday, 16 GOP members of the House of Representatives weighed in on the decision, calling for a delay on the vote until next year.
"We are troubled by the Administration's push to ratify the New START Treaty amid outstanding concerns regarding Russian intentions, missile defense limitations, and nuclear modernization," the congressmen, who do not have a vote on the pact, wrote Tuesday to Senate leaders Harry Reid (D-NV) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY). "Given the security implications associated with this treaty and the importance of such a treaty enjoying bipartisan support, we believe the Senate should not be rushed in its deliberations. Therefore, we urge the Senate not to vote on the New START Treaty in the lame duck congressional session and certainly not until these important security issues are resolved."
The representatives, led by incoming House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) and House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee ranking Republican Mike Turner (R-OH), acknowledge in the letter that they have no official say over the treaty's ratification. But nevertheless, they want to make their voices heard.
"The outcome of the treaty will undoubtedly impact national security policy and investment decisions within our jurisdiction as authorizers of the annual defense bill, and we will be responsible for overseeing its implementation," they wrote. "Because of these roles, we feel compelled to express our concerns."
On Thursday, 22 GOP senators, who do get a vote, wrote to McConnell (PDF) to lay out their position on the New START treaty. They stated that they wanted to be consulted before any agreement is reached, that the ratification debate shouldn't be rushed, and that they must see the full negotiating record between the administration and the Russians before the vote -- a record the administration has already said it won't provide.
The senators didn't say they would definitely vote no if the treaty comes up this month, but that's the implicit threat. Even without these 22 votes, the treaty could garner the 67 votes needed for ratification, but not without Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and the votes he brings in tow.
The letters sent by the GOP congressman and senators are just the latest in the public back and forth over whether there's enough time to complete the treaty during the lame duck session. On Dec. 3, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told The Cable in an exclusive interview that an agreement with the GOP to hold the vote this month was close. "It's like a no-hit game. We've made a lot of progress, but it's not done until it's done," she said.
Kyl, who has said that the debate on New START can't begin until the taxes issue is resolved, said Dec. 5 on CBS's Face the Nation that "there is not time to do it in the lame duck when you consider all of the other things that the Democratic leader wants to do."
That comment prompted Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) to say Monday that he was getting "mixed signals" from the GOP.
"There are some on the Democratic side that thought we were in good shape to call it before we left, and to act on it. And, then over the weekend, Sen. Kyl said it would not be called during the lame-duck session. So, I can't tell you exactly where we are today," Durbin said.
On the same day as Kyl's pessimistic statement, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) said that he was optimistic about holding a vote on the treaty this year. "The votes are there [to ratify the treaty]," Lugar told CNN's Candy Crowley.
The administration continues to build its case for a debate and vote on New START this year, securing the albeit-reserved endorsement of the final former secretary of state yet to weigh in publicly on the treaty.
"With the right commitments and understandings, ratification of the New Start treaty can contribute to this goal," former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal. "If the Senate enters those commitments and understandings into the record of ratification, New Start deserves bipartisan support, whether in the lame-duck session or next year."
MANAMA, Bahrain—The Obama administration and Republican congressional leaders are in the final stages of reaching an agreement to bring the president's nuclear arms treaty to a Senate vote this month, according to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"It's like a no-hit game. We've made a lot of progress, but it's not done until it's done," Clinton told The Cable in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of the IISS Manama Security Dialogue.
Senate sources say the deal is imminent and would result in bringing the treaty, known as New START, to the Senate floor on Dec. 13, which could provide up to two weeks of floor time to debate and then ratify the pact. That's the amount of time Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) has said is needed to properly vet the treaty. And that would allow the White House to fulfil its promise to get it done before Christmas.
But Kyl, who holds the keys to ratification because so many Senate Republicans are committed to following his lead, has also said that the Senate needs to resolve differences over extending George W. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy.
Clinton acknowledged that this was the main sticking point.
"We have been encouraged by the positive response we've received from a number of Republicans," she said. "They're also telling us, ‘You know, it depends on what happens during this session.'"
She also said that if and when the treaty does get a vote, she thinks it will secure the 67 yes votes needed for it to go into effect.
"I believe we have enough votes that recognize the national security importance of doing this. But I'm not counting the chickens until they vote."
Three key Republican senators, including Senate Majority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) wrote to President Obama Monday to demand more information about the administration's dealings with Russia regarding missile-defense cooperation.
"As you know, the ballistic missile defense program touches some of our country's most sensitive technology, collection assets and real time intelligence," wrote Kyl, along with Sens. James Risch (R-ID) and Mark Kirk (R-IL). "We therefore request detailed responses to the following questions, before the administration enters into any agreement or joint study related to U.S. missile defenses [with Russia]."
The letter then ticks off a list of a dozen detailed information requests the senators have for the White House about the potential for cooperation on missile defense between the United States (or NATO) and Russia that was discussed at the recent NATO summit in Lisbon. The letter also requests a full briefing, "including documents," on the U.S.-Russia working discussions on missile defense led by Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher and her Russian counterpart Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov.
The letter does not once mention New START, President Obama's nuclear arms-reduction treaty with Russia, but the timing is no coincidence. Kyl is the GOP's point man on dealing with the administration as the White House pushes for a ratification vote during this lame duck session of Congress, and all eyes are upon him as Washington insiders try to assess whether Republicans will ultimately agree to debate and vote on the pact this year.
Risch and Kirk are also important for different reasons. Risch nearly derailed the Sept. 16 Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote on New START by declaring that a classified intelligence issue was giving him new concerns about the treaty. Kirk, who is moving over from the House in January, just replaced a Democratic senator and has said he is not yet ready to support ratification.
One signature missing from the letter is that of Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), the senator has most often voiced concerns about missile defense in relation to New START. McCain seemed to indicate this week that he was leaning toward supporting a vote this year.
"I believe we can move forward with the START treaty and satisfy Senator Kyl's concerns and mine about missile defense and others," McCain told ABC's George Stephanopoulos Tuesday.
But now, even though Kyl, Risch, and Kirk aren't directly linking their missile-defense request to New START, they've set out a new request on a related issue just as the administration thought it had fulfilled the bulk of their outstanding demands.
Nobody, including the White House, knows whether the GOP leadership will ultimately agree to vote on New START this month. The administration isn't backing down from its call for a vote, despite the crowded Senate calendar. Behind the scenes, quiet discussions are ongoing.
The Washington Times today ran a story claiming that a new internal State Department report revealed "secret talks" between the Obama administration and Russia on missile defense and claiming that the report contradicted congressional testimony by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The State Department struck back, issuing talking points maintaining that there is no "secret deal" with Russia on missile defense, that discussions on cooperation with Russia have been ongoing and public for some time, and that any cooperation will in no way limit U.S. missile-defense plans or capabilities.
As for the Russians, they've been cold on the idea of missile-defense cooperation all along, based on their longstanding concerns about the very concept of missile defense and their abiding mistrust of U.S. motives. Lately, however, they have made it clear that if NATO and the United States are going to deploy missile defense all over Europe, they want to be involved.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin both made statements recently to that effect.
In a provocative statement that is unlikely to be viewed as helpful in the White House, Putin told CNN's Larry King this week that without New START, Russia will have to build up its nuclear forces, which are also meant to deal with the "new threats" posed by U.S. plans for a European-based missile-defense system.
Putin also explained his skepticism of the missile-defense program. "We have been told that you'll do it in order to secure you against the, let's say, Iranian nuclear threat," Putin said. "But such a threat, as of now, doesn't exist."
King also pressed Putin to respond to Defense Secretary Robert Gates's contention that "Russian democracy has disappeared," as documented in a WikiLeaked diplomatic cable and first reported on The Cable.
Calling Gates "deeply misled," he said, "When we are talking with our American friends and tell them there are systemic problems in this regard, we can hear from them 'Don't interfere with our affairs.' This is our tradition and it's going to continue like that. We are not interfering. But to our colleagues, I would also like to advise you, don't interfere either [with] the sovereign choice of the Russian people."
He also said that it would take a "a very dumb nature" for the Senate not to ratify New START, which he said is in America's own interest.
When Defense Secretary Robert Gates sat down with French Minister of Defense Herve Morin Feb. 8 in Paris, he had a harsh assessment of the Russian government and some severe differences with his French counterpart on several issues of international security.
"SecDef (Gates) observed that Russian democracy has disappeared and the government was an oligarchy run by the security services," read a cable about the meeting classified by Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow and leaked to the self described whistleblower website WikiLeaks. The website posted Sunday just over 200 of the over 250,000 sensitive State Department documents it claims to have in its possession.
"President [Dmitry] Medvedev has a more pragmatic vision for Russia than [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin, but there has been little real change," Gates told Morin, according to the cable.
Gates was pressing Morin to rethink the French sale of the amphibious assault ship the Mistral to Russia, a sale that several NATO member countries and the country of Georgia loudly protested around the time of the meeting. The cable details how strongly Gates pressed the French on the issue and how strongly he was rebuffed.
Gates' comments about the Russian leadership were an attempt to explain why he and many central and eastern European countries couldn't accept Morin's statement that the West must trust the Russians when they claimed the ship would not be used for aggressive purposes. In fact, Morin told Gates that he personally pushed hard for the sale, despite that Russia has not lived up to its agreements following its 2008 war with Georgia. Ultimately, the sale of the Mistral went through and U.S. officials never publicly condemned it.
Gates' frank analysis of the Russian government matches the take of top Russian opposition leaders, such as Russia's former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who told Foreign Policy last month that, "We have no democracy at all. We don't have any future of a democratic state. Everything has been lost, everything has been taken from the people by the authorities."
But the comments go far beyond what top U.S. officials have said in public about their concerns of the retreat of democracy and good governance in Russia. In a separate cable sent in late 2008, the U.S. embassy in Moscow reported that Medvedev "plays Robin to Putin's Batman," the Guardian reported.
In their February meeting, Morin told Gates that expanding NATO to include Georgia would weaken NATO Article 5, which provides for a common defense. In response to that remark, Gates "stated his preference for NATO to focus its efforts in the Euro-Atlantic area, perhaps extending into the Mediterranean," the cable stated.
The cable also reveals how strongly the French defense minister opposed U.S. plans for missile defense in Europe, especially the drive to link the plans with NATO, as was codified at the Lisbon summit only last week. Morin said the Obama administration's new plan would "give publics a false sense of security," and argued for a system based more on deterrence. He asked Gates who the system was aimed at and told Gates European countries don't have "infinite" funds to spend on such a system.
Gates replied that the system did add to deterrence and would have increased the capability as opposed to the Bush administration's plan. The new scheme also allowed Russian participation, which was impossible under the previous design, he said.
On Iran, Gates told Morin that Israel had the capability of striking Iran's nuclear facilities, but "he didn't know if they would be successful." He also told Morin that even a successful Israeli strike would only delay Iran's nuclear program "by one to three years, while unifying the Iranian people to be forever embittered against the attacker."
Read the full cable after the jump:
Even if the ratification vote on the New START treaty happens this year (as the White House wants) as opposed to next year (as GOP leadership is pushing for) there are some senior senators who are flat out opposed to the agreement, including Senate Intelligence Committee ranking Republican Kit Bond (R-MO).
"I rise today to express my strong opposition to the administration's New START Treaty," Bond said in a statement submitted to the Congressional Record on Nov. 18. "I do so after great deliberation and after initial disposition to support the treaty because of the generic importance of these types of treaties for our Nation. But with what I have learned from classified intelligence information, I cannot in good conscience support this treaty."
Calling the treaty "oversold and overhyped," Bond argued that while the U.S. would have to reduce deployed arsenals under the treaty, the Russian would be allowed to increase arsenals because they are currently below the treaty's maximum allowances. He also railed against Russia's unilateral declaration that it would withdraw from the treaty if they view U.S. missile defense plans as upseting strategic stability, calling the Russian statement "pure and simple manipulation."
Most significantly, Bond claims that based on classified intelligence reports that he's seen, the treaty does not permit adequate verification activities needed to make sure the Russians aren't cheating. All verification activities have stopped since the old treaty expired Dec. 5, but the new proposed verification measures are somewhat different from the ones that lapsed.
"As the vice chairman of this committee, I have reviewed the key intelligence on our ability to monitor this treaty and heard from our intelligence professionals. There is no doubt in my mind that the United States cannot reliably verify the treaty's 1,550 limit on deployed warheads," he said.
He accused the Russians of cheating on previous arms control treaties, including the original START, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological Weapons Convention, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, and Open Skies. "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me," he said.
Other senior Republicans, such as Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), John McCain (R-AZ), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have said repeatedly that they are not against the treaty but have concerns that they want to work out before they can offer support. Bond, however, made it clear: As far as he's concerned, the treaty is beyond repair.
"Unfortunately, New START suffers from fundamental flaws that no amount of tinkering around the edges can fix. I believe the better course for our nation, and for global stability, is to put this treaty aside and replace it with a better one."
The U.S.-Russian "reset," meant to repair relations between the two former rivals, has been led by U.S. President Barack Obama and his counterpart, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The White House sees the reset, along with its key deliverable, the New START nuclear reductions treaty, as part of its effort to strengthen Medvedev's credibility within the Russian system, as opposed to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Vice President Joseph Biden spoke of how New START fits into the administration's drive to empower Medvedev at a small roundtable on Nov. 20 with a group of foreign affairs columnists, including your humble Cable guy.
"I do believe that there is a play here," he said. "Medvedev has rested everything on this notion of a reset. Who knows what Putin would do? My guess is he would not have gone there [in terms of committing to the reset], but maybe."
Russia experts aren't so sure that passing New START would strengthen Medvedev's position vis a vis Putin. Most of them believe that Putin was, is, and will likely remain the more powerful of the two Russian leaders.
Biden acknowledged that nobody in Washington, including himself, really knows what's going on inside the Kremlin between Medvedev and Putin, but he truly believes that a stronger "reset" policy, which includes ratifying New START, is good for Medvedev -- and a stronger Medvedev is good for U.S.-Russia relations.
"The centerpiece of where Medvedev is, is this reset. And [START] is the crown jewel inside that reset, because it wasn't Putin pushing this, it was Medvedev," Biden explained. "I'm not suggesting that if START fails, all of the sudden we're back in a Cold War with Russia. But I am saying that the things in the margins that make a big difference right now might be different."
Biden pointed to what he characterized as "unprecedented" Russian cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran as areas where the reset policy has advanced U.S. interests, and which could be jeopardized if New START fails.
But Russia experts from the left and right agreed that the idea of a rift on foreign policy between Medvedev and Putin is often exaggerated in Washington, and that Medvedev isn't likely to have pursued the reset without Putin's agreement. But they also agreed that Putin's likely return to the presidency in 2012 spells trouble for the U.S.-Russia relationship.
"We have a tendency in Washington to see a mortal struggle over the strategic direction of Russia between Medvedev and Putin that simply doesn't exist in reality," said Samuel Charap, fellow at the Center for American Progress. "However, the implications of a return to the presidency for Putin are serious and significant in a negative way for the U.S."
As president, Putin did engage in arms control agreements with the Bush administration, including signing the 2003 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), known as the Moscow Treaty, which would be nullified by New START. But Putin also left office with a bad taste in his mouth regarding arms control deals with Washington, after the Bush administration unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty..
Charap said it's wise to have a "healthy skepticism" about Biden's notion that there are real differences on strategic questions between Medvedev and Putin. "I cannot imagine that major strategic decisions of national import are taken by Medvedev without the consultation of Putin," he said.
Whether or not Putin would be more or less amenable to New START, the Obama administration shouldn't be trying to play the murky game of internal Russian politics, other experts said.
"It's a dangerous path to go down to try to split Medvedev and Putin," said Alexandros Petersen, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "Although focusing on Medvedev seems to have produced some dividends, we should not be under the illusion that we can elevate Medvedev to be the principal decision maker, because he will never be as long as Putin is around."
"I don't see any evidence to show that there's a split between Medvedev and Putin on this issue," Petersen said. "They actually agree on this issue, which is that they are willing to cooperate now but they will take any opportunity to get out of their responsibilities while holding the U.S. to their side of the agreement."
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Russia's former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who served under President Putin, described the Medvedev-Putin relationship as that between "a boss and senior assistant who temporarily occupies the position of president of the country."
When asked if he thinks Putin will run for president in 2012, Kasyanov said, "I wouldn't say ‘run,' just step in."
While the Senate is focused on the struggle over whether to ratify the New START treaty during the lame duck session, foreign policy and Russia specialists are also watching the House intently, to see if it will pass a separate civilian nuclear agreement with Russia -- despite ( not surprisingly) staunch GOP opposition.
The Obama administration submitted the deal known as the U.S.-Russia 123 agreement, to Congress back in May. The agreement would allow U.S.-Russian cooperation on sharing nuclear technology for energy purposes. Shortly thereafter, a diverse coalition of Republicans and Democrats mobilized to voice their concerns. The agreement is one of several bilateral civilian nuclear agreements the Obama administration has been pushing. It has signed a deal with the UAE, is in the process of updating deals with Australia and South Korea, and is negotiating similar deals with Vietnam and Jordan.
But the Russia deal has spurred the greatest opposition, especially from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who is not only a Russia skeptic, but also the incoming chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"The U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation agreement should be stopped," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement Nov. 17. "Russia continues to undermine U.S. interests in Iran, Venezuela, Central Asia, and elsewhere. Russia promotes nuclear proliferation through its reckless policies of selling nuclear facilities, technology, and materials to any country with ready cash, including constructing the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr."
Ros-Lehtinen even introduced a congressional resolution of disapproval regarding the deal, although nobody expects the resolution to be considered on the House floor. Unlike with the New START treaty, Congress does not have to ratify civilian nuclear agreements. If Congress simply does not act and 90 days of legislative business pass, the agreement goes into effect.
But that 90-day threshold also presents an obstacle to the administration's hope to implement the agreement. Congress needs to be in session for about 15 more days this year to reach 90 days, and nobody knows if that's going to happen. If Congress returns shortly after Thanksgiving and does business for three full weeks, that's enough. But if the lame duck session is short, the administration will have to resubmit it next year.
"If the legislative clock stops before the Russia agreement is approved, the president should not resubmit it to Congress until Moscow has changed course," Ros-Lehtinen said.
Ros-Lehtinen is also angry that the administration decided not to send anyone to testify at the committee's Sept. 24 hearing on the agreement. She argues that means the agreement has never had a Congressional oversight hearing, which is required by law.
"We can well understand why the Executive Branch wanted to kill a hearing on the Russia 123 agreement. Certainly none of us who have been following the overtures to the Russian government, including the removal of sanctions on Russian entities assisting Iran's nuclear and missile program, are surprised," she said at the time. "After all, it is abundantly clear that the Russia 123 agreement is a political payoff to the Russians, pure and simple, and cannot be defended on its merits."
Russia experts point out, however, that the U.S.-Russia 123 agreement preceded the Obama administration's "reset" policy toward Russia. The deal was in fact signed by President George W. Bush and would have gone into force in 2008, but was pulled after Russia invaded Georgia. They also point out that Bush supported Moscow's assistance to Tehran in building a light water reactor at Bushehr: it was intended to allow Russia to supply nuclear fuel to Iran and, in the process, remove any materials that could be weaponized.
"The best argument against Iran having their own enrichment capacity is having another country do it for them. So Bushehr is not a proliferation risk," said Samuel Charap, a fellow at the Center for American Progress. He said that Congress probably would not move to block the deal even next year, but "even a delay is going to be misinterpreted (as a rejection of the deal) in Moscow by people who don't understand how American politics work."
A GOP House aide who works on the issue disagreed. "People differ on the risk that Bushehr represents. Some people believe a light water reactor is problematic in Iran," the aide said, adding that on Iran, "Russia should be doing much more... There are 123 agreements that don't carry the baggage that the Russia 123 agreement does."
If Congress returns the Monday after Thanksgiving, they would have to stay in session until about Dec. 9 for the agreement to go through, the aide said. So will the House leadership have enough work to keep everybody in town that long?
"That's the million dollar question," the aide said. "A lot of people are wondering what the calendar is going to look like."
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.
As the White House scrambles to secure enough GOP Senate votes to ratify the New START treaty with Russia, there's a lot of overt political grandstanding -- and a lot of horse trading going on behind the scenes.
In a long floor speech on Wednesday Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) declared, "I am deeply concerned the New START treaty may once again undermine the confidence of our friends and allies in Central and Eastern Europe." Then, quietly, he offered his support to the Obama administration in exchange for waiving visa requirements for Polish citizens.
Various GOP senators have submitted demands in exchange for their support of the treaty, but they are usually related to concerns over the treaty itself. For example, the administration has offered Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) over $84 billion for nuclear modernization, under the premise that shoring up the safety of the stockpile is needed to ensure national security.
But admitting Poland into the State Department's Visa Waiver Program, a longstanding aim for the Polish government, is pretty tough to tie to the New START treaty. Here's how Voinovich's office linked the issues in a statement given Thursday to The Cable.
"Senator Voinovich is eager to strengthen the United States' relations with our allies in Eastern Europe to allay their concerns stemming from President Obama's pursuit of the ‘Reset Policy,' and the expansion of the existing Visa Waiver Program does just that," said Voinovich's press secretary Rebecca Neal.
Neal said that Voinovich requested an expansion of the Visa Waiver Program following a Sept. 9 phone conversation with Vice President Joseph Biden.
"During the call, Vice President Biden asked what the administration could do to address Senator Voinovich's concerns regarding the treaty, as well as other matters of importance to the senator," said Neal. "The vice president's offer was not limited to items already in the treaty."
Voinovich drove home his advocacy for the Poles in a long floor speech Wednesday about New START that was seen by some as an indication he wasn't ready to support the treaty.
"The president's stated goal of a world without nuclear weapons is noble, but I believe the Senate's consideration of the New START treaty must be considered through a wider lens that includes the treaty's implications for our friends and allies in the former captive nations," said Voinovich.
Voinovich even went so far as to circulate a proposed amendment to the Senate's resolution for ratification for New START, obtained by The Cable, that would prevent the treaty from going into force unless the Visa Waiver Program was opened up to Poland.
A Polish diplomat told The Cable that Warsaw has been working with Voinovich for years on this issue."We knew about this initiative, we support it, and we like it. We have cooperated with Senator Voinovich for years over the issue," the diplomat said. "Maybe with the help of Senator Voinovich we can achieve this in the next months."
But Voinovich may also have interests at home informing his amendment: Large parts of Ohio were settled by Polish immigrants, and second- and-third generation Poles are extremely influential in Ohio government.
The diplomat said that for Poles, and their relatives all over Ohio, the issues is one of fairness -- not related to U.S.-Russian relations in any way.
"We don't fear the ‘reset' with Russia, but the main issue is that we are suffering an injustice right now by being excluded from the program."
Biden's office declined to comment.
Update: Pawel Maciag, press attaché for Embassy of Poland in Washington, wrote in to The Cable, "Quotes from a Polish diplomat published in this article may have mistakenly suggested that Poland takes a position regarding linkage between ratification of the New START and Visa Waiver Program. We do not. We are very sorry for the misunderstanding."
Meanwhile, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski published an article Friday that said, "It is important to make clear: my government supports the ratification of New START, because we believe it will bolster our country’s security, and that of Europe as a whole."
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
10 incoming GOP senators wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) today to demand the right to vote on the New START treaty with Russia. Senator-elect Mark Kirk (R-IL) didn't sign that letter, but his staff told The Cable that he hasn't decided how he will vote yet and won't decide until he receives several specific things from the Obama administration.
Kirk is a key vote, and not just because he is a moderate GOP lawmaker with decades of military and foreign policy experience. Kirk will fill the seat being vacated by appointee Roland Burris, which means he will be seated this year, probably shortly after the Thanksgiving break. So if somehow the administration is able to secure a vote on New START this year, Kirk will be one of three brand-new senators who will vote on the pact, along with Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Chris Coons (D-DE). Among them, Kirk is the only Republican taking over for a departing Democrat.
"The Senator-elect wants to carefully review all available information before making a decision on this matter," Kirk spokesman Lance Trover told The Cable Thursday.
An aide to Kirk explained to The Cable that Kirk is asking for multiple pieces of information before he makes up his mind: copies of the complete negotiating record of the treaty; documents related to a parallel discussion on U.S.-Russian missile defense cooperation conducted by Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher and her Russian counterpart deputy foreign minister Sergei Rybakov; classified briefings on the reliability of America's nuclear warheads from the directors of the Sandia, Los Alamos, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories; U.S. Strategic Command's written analysis prepared to support the treaty negotiations; planning documents showing the administration' commitment to modernize the three legs of the U.S. nuclear deterrent; and formal briefings from the Departments of State, Defense, and Energy.
That's a lot of data for the administration to pull together for Kirk before the end of the year. The administration has so far refused to provide senators with the full negotiating record or the inside details of the Tauscher-Rybakov discussions, so that could also be a stumbling block in the effort to win Kirk's vote.
On a conference call Thursday afternoon, The Cable asked Ben Chang, deputy spokesman for the National Security Staff, if the administration would entertain the idea of handing over the full negotiating record for New START.
Chang wouldn't say. But he reiterated that " there is time on the Senate calendar to get the treaty ratified this year and we are committed to do so."
So what about the other two new senators who will be seated during the lame duck? We haven't been able to get a response from Coons on his position, but Manchin spokesperson Lara Ramsburg told The Cable that "Joe Manchin's governing philosophy on defense policy will be to listen to our commanders and generals on the ground, and before he can cast a vote for or against START II, he will need to assess their recommendations." We're still trying to figure out just what that means, considering that every military leader from Defense Secretary Robert Gates on down has voiced strong support.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama continues to pledge to push for a treaty vote this year and has tasked Vice President Joseph Biden to work on it "day and night."
"It is a national security imperative that the United States ratify the New START treaty this year," Obama said Thursday. "There is no higher national security priority for the lame duck session of Congress. The stakes for American national security are clear, and they are high."
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