President Obama can get the Senate to ratify the New START treaty. But it won't be easy.

Military analysis.
Nov. 17 2010 5:33 PM

Going to War Over a Treaty

President Obama can get the Senate to ratify the New START treaty. But it won't be easy.

Hillary Clinton talking about the START treaty. Click image to expand.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

It's odd, given how few voters care about the subject, but it looks like President Obama's first major legislative battle since the midterm elections is going to be over a strategic arms-reduction treaty with Russia. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona declared Tuesday that a vote on New START, as it's called, wouldn't take place during the lame duck session—a statement that many interpreted as the treaty's death knell.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

By law, it takes two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 votes, to ratify a treaty. Obama would have a hard enough time mustering the eight Republicans he would need in the current Senate to supplement the 59 senators who caucus with Democrats. Putting off the vote until January, when the GOP will have six more Senate seats, will make the task nearly impossible.

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During the G-20 meeting last week, Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev—with whom he co-signed the treaty in April—that getting New START ratified would be his top priority during the lame duck session. At that point, Kyl seemed close to endorsing the accord—and Kyl has positioned himself as the Republicans' go-to senator on political negotiations over nuclear matters. The word went out: If Kyl said the treaty was OK, it would pass. If he didn't, it wouldn't.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed in July, Kyl wrote that most senators would consider New START "relatively benign" as long as Obama spent enough money to maintain and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Two months earlier, and quite apart from treaty politics, Obama had issued a plan to spend $180 billion to do just that ($80 billion to upgrade the national weapons labs, $100 billion * to modify or replace the aging arsenal of nuclear missiles)—and reaffirmed the basic tenets of U.S. nuclear-deterrence policy.

After the midterms, when ratification became urgent, Obama intensified his efforts to bring Kyl around, dispatching senior officers and officials to Arizona for negotiations. For instance, Kyl had claimed in his Journal piece that the nuclear budget for the next fiscal year fell $2.4 billion short of what was needed. Obama's emissaries agreed to add $4.1 billion.

Apparently, that wasn't enough—much to the surprise of Obama and his aides, who'd received no advance word of Kyl's announcement on Tuesday. Rather than cave, the administration is doubling down, pushing full steam ahead for a vote on ratification during the lame duck session. Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton each made speeches, arguing that the treaty is essential to the national security. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, re-emphasized the point in a speech this morning, with Clinton by his side. She and Gates are reaching out to wavering senators.

In his news conference today, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the president has the votes to ratify the treaty. Even some Democrats privately say they're not so sure. But the suggestion isn't so outrageous as some of this morning's headlines suggest.

First, as Kerry said in his speech today, Kyl didn't quite shut the door on ratification. Here's Kyl's statement in full:

When Majority Leader Harry Reid asked me if I thought the treaty could be considered in the lame duck session, I replied I did not think so given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization. I appreciate the recent effort by the Administration to address some of the issues that we have raised and I look forward to continuing to work with Senator Kerry, DoD and DoE [the Departments of Defense and Energy] officials.

Notice: Kyl didn't say the treaty shouldn't be considered in the lame duck session, only that he didn't think it could be, given the other work on the table and "unresolved issues related to START and modernization."

As for the other work on the table, he seemed to be tossing the ball back to Obama: Which agenda do you value more—tax cuts or this? As for "unresolved issues," there are none related to New START. A few months ago, at Republicans' request, Kerry agreed to put off a floor vote on the treaty, so that everyone could examine the text and raise their concerns. Kerry said today he has since reached out to all the senators who'd had questions and that, as of now, there is "no substantive disagreement" on the treaty itself. (For more analysis of this truth, click here and here.)