CQ TODAY ONLINE NEWS â€“ FOREIGN POLICY,Nov. 4, 2010 "Future of New START Uncertain With GOP Gains" By Emily Cadei, CQ Staff
Republicansâ€™ Senate gains in Tuesdayâ€™s elections strengthen the GOPâ€™s hand to block a vote this year on one of the Obama administrationâ€™s top priorities â€” a new strategic arms control treaty with Russia â€” but the White House is pushing hard for Congress to act.
Democrats took solace in the fact that the party kept control of the chamber and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., won his closely fought race. With Reid holding onto his spot atop a Democratic majority, it is â€œmuch easier to make the argument that we can do this in the lame duck,â€� said one mid-level administration aid, referring to the post-election work period that starts Nov. 15.
Obama singled out ratification of the treaty, known as New START (Treaty Doc 111-5), as one of the things he would like to see Congress get done in the lame-duck session during remarks to the press on Thursday. Speaking after a meeting with his cabinet, the president said the treaty is the sort of accord â€œthat traditionally has gotten bipartisan support.â€�
â€œI am hopeful we can get that done,â€� Obama said, noting that it would send a strong signal both to Russia and the world about American intentions on non-proliferation.
A vote during lame duck appears to be key to the prospects for prompt Senate ratification of New START, given the minimum six-seat gain Senate Republicans can look forward to in the 112th Congress (two races have yet to be called) and the fact that Democrats will have to start over on the ratification process.
Treaty ratification requires the approval of two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 votes.
â€œNext year obviously things become much more difficult,â€� said John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World and a strong supporter of arms control efforts, noting that instead of needing to win eight GOP votes, New START will need the backing of at least 14 Republicans for ratification.
That assessment seems to be shared by the Russians. The foreign affairs committee in Russiaâ€™s parliament, known as the Duma, annulled its recommendation to ratify the treaty Wednesday following the U.S. election results. Konstantin Kosachev, the chairman of the committee, told the Interfax news agency, â€œIf the lame-duck senators from the old make-up cannot do this in the next weeks then the chances of ratification in the new Senate will be radically lower than they were until now.â€�
Despite being a top priority of the administration and Democratic Senate leaders, there is no guarantee that they will hold a vote in the lame-duck session. Backers of the treaty worry that the GOPâ€™s strong showing in the midterm elections will embolden Senate Republicans who are skeptical of the accord to push it off until next year, when the odds against Senate ratification grow stronger.
Isaacs said the â€œmajor unknownâ€� is whether Republicans â€œwill say, â€˜okay weâ€™re in session for the next couple of weeks, letâ€™s conduct business,â€™â€� during the lame-duck session, or â€œwill they say, â€˜weâ€™re in such a strong position, letâ€™s put offâ€™â€� major legislative initiatives until next year.
Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnellâ€™s office did not respond to an inquiry about the treaty, but in a speech to the Heritage Foundation Thursday morning the Kentucky senator raised doubts about how much the GOP leadership will be willing to defer to Obamaâ€™s agenda. â€œIf the administration wants cooperation, it will have to begin to move in our direction,â€� McConnell said, according to prepared remarks, adding that Republicans will be â€œsticking ever more closely to the conservative principles that got us here.â€�
Tom Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association, which supports New START, said that the Senate Democratic leadership is unlikely â€œto bring this treaty up if itâ€™s going to take two weeks of floor time.â€�
Democrats will only hold a vote if it can get to the floor in a matter of days, Collina predicted. â€œThatâ€™s where they need Republican agreement.â€�
Beyond political calculations, that agreement is largely contingent on Minority Whip Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
Kyl, the GOPâ€™s unofficial point man for New START, has been a thorn in the side of the Obama administration all year on the accord. A senior White House official told CQ last week that the administration continues to negotiate with Kyl on one of his major demands â€”a stepped-up commitment to nuclear modernization even as officials seek to reduce the nationâ€™s nuclear stockpile through the treaty. In signing New START in April, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to decrease their countriesâ€™ strategic nuclear weapons by one-third.
â€œWe feel pretty good about what weâ€™re likely to propose to him,â€� the official said last week.
Close observers of New START agree that Kylâ€™s comfort with the treaty and the White House stance on modernization remains a critical factor in getting agreement for a vote in the lame duck. â€œFor better or worse [Kylâ€™s] holding all the cards,â€� said Collina.
Most observers expect that if the Senate does hold a vote on the treaty ratification this year, it stands a good chance of being approved.
The mid-level administration official observed Thursday that, despite conventional wisdom that little can be accomplished in lame-duck sessions, Congress has passed a number of major bills in such post-election work periods over the past few decades, including approval of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1994 and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002.
The prospects dim, however, in the new Congress, when Democrats will maintain just over a bare majority.
Collina noted that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would have to take a new vote on treaty ratification if it gets pushed to next year, and it would not be â€œoutrageousâ€� for a new committee member to request additional hearings to learn more about the pact.
â€œItâ€™s not like you can pick where you left off,â€� he said.
Isaacs, however, expressed some optimism given the preponderance of what he called â€œestablishmentâ€� Republicans among the GOPâ€™s freshman Senate class in 2011.
There was little talk of foreign policy on the campaign trail, creating uncertainty about where these newly elected officials stand on the treaty, but Isaacs cited Rob Portman of Ohio, Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois, John Hoeven of North Dakota and John Boozman of Arkansas as GOP freshmen who may â€œconsider voting for New START.â€� Kirk is one of three new senators â€” along with Democrats Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Chris Coons of Delaware â€” who won special elections on Tuesday and will be seated right away â€” giving them a potential vote on New START during the lame duck.
Isaacs said his organization has put out feelers to Kirk on the treaty, but the Illinois Republican has been â€œtotally non-committal.â€�
Source: CQ Today Online News
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