War Stories

Going to War Over a Treaty

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

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.

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.

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.)

Is Kyl open to further bargaining? Or is he stringing Obama along, in the same way that many Republicans strung him along during the health care debate, holding out for certain conditions and compromises, then voting against the bill anyway?

Meanwhile, the administration is trying to sway more Republicans, one by one, arguing that this is about vital national security and that politics shouldn’t get in the way. Kyl is likely to view this as an attempt by Obama and the Senate Democrats to disrupt the iron discipline that the Republican leadership has imposed on its rank-and-file. If Obama manages to loosen eight Republicans to vote with him now, who’s to say how often he might be able to do the same thing, on other legislative issues, in the new Congress? An Obama victory, in other words, could undermine Kyl’s authority as the party’s whip. This would be a good thing for the White House and the Senate Democrats, but pushing this tactic alone would also ensure a bruising fight over ratification, a fight they might well end up losing.

What’s probably called for is a mixed approach. First, pick off individual Republicans who might warm to the idea that it’s better for the national interest to ratify a “relatively benign” treaty (as their own whip called it) than to hand the president a political defeat for its own sake. But second, keep going at Kyl, not only with carrots but also, this time, with sticks. It could be noted, for instance, that the congressional consensus for spending tens of billions of dollars on the nuclear arsenal in the post-Cold War era may well collapse if New START isn’t ratified. Liberal Democrats, who have reluctantly acceded to nuclear modernization as part of the bargain for reducing nuclear arms reduction, are likely to turn against the program—certainly against the extra $4.1 billion that Kyl squeezed out—in order to shrink the arsenal one way or the other. And the new breed of Republican deficit hawks might question the need for spending so much money on anything.

If Kyl thinks that the treaty will get ratified anyway—or that, if it doesn’t get ratified, he will lose all the extra money for nuclear modernization—then maybe he’ll jump onboard. That way he could preserve his standing as a security hawk and, perhaps more important, an effective power broker.

Of course, he and his colleagues in the Republican leadership might think it’s more important to deny Obama any victory, to make him seem ineffective and thus erode his chances of re-election in 2012 (the GOP’s No. 1 priority, according to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell).  If that’s what ends up happening, at least Obama will know the name of the game for the next two years—and, maybe, figure out how to play it.

Correction, Aug. 3, 2011: This story originally misstated this amount as $100 million. (Return to the corrected article.)