The year is drawing to a close, and 2010’s lame duck Congress has a lot on its plate that probably won’t be finished before adjourning for the last time. Arguably one of the most significant unfinished items is the Obama administration’s “New START.” New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) is the latest nuclear weapons treaty between the United States and Russia, and would replace the now lapsed START I and follow on to START II. If approved, the “New START” would impose caps on the nuclear warhead stockpiles of Russia and the United States that are 30 percent lower than that set by START II.
But now the likelihood of the treaty getting before the Senate for a vote appears to be fading fast, if it hasn’t disappeared altogether already. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, who was playing a key role negotiating Republican concerns with New START, has apparently withdrawn his support for considering the treaty before year’s end. The reason? There’s too much to do before the Senate adjourns to give New START the attention it deserves.
Republican opposition to START has ostensibly been presented as concern over rushing something as important as a strategic nuclear pact, as well as concerns over modernizing the U.S.’ existing nuclear weapons infrastructure. Over the course of the past few months, there was every indication that the treaty was progressing with a quiet bipartisanship that would at least bring it up for a vote. Recent work by the highly respected Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, a supporter of New START, also appeared to buoy ratification efforts.
So why has the effort fallen short now? Certainly, Republican concerns over giving the Senate enough time to deliberate the treaty seem reasonable, but is it really the case that there are that many other priorities needing congressional attention that a nuclear weapons reduction treaty is being set on ice?
Unfortunately, the maneuvering between the President and the Republicans smell of 2012 presidential politics. Had the Democrats not taken such a profound beating during the 2010 election, and had they retained the majority in the House and not lost so much ground in the Senate, the administration would certainly be willing to wait for the next Congress to be sworn in. But with six new Republican Senators taking formerly Democratic seats next year, the likelihood of passage appears slim. So, sensing another blow to the President’s credibility brewing, the Democrats need to push for passage now.
The Republicans are at fault here too. President Obama isn’t stupid. He knows, or at least has good reason to believe, that the GOP’s stalling isn’t to get enough time to ponder the intricacies of New START. With control of the House and renewed strength in the Senate, it seems quite plausible that Republicans may either try to extract some kind of unrelated policy concessions in exchange for supporting the treaty, or they may even prevent passage entirely as part of the effort to discredit Obama further on the world stage.
One can actually draw a few parallels between the turmoil around New START and the health care reform debates of 2009. Then, the Democrats tried to get health care reform passed as quickly as possible in part because they knew the closer the debate got to mid-term elections, the more the potential backlash at the polls (which turned out to be a pretty accurate calculation). The Republicans wanted to stall, to force the issue past the midterm elections, where they expected to pick up enough seats in Congress to thwart passage entirely. Only half of that plan worked. Because of the rather stiff-necked strategies of both parties, the country has been saddled with a well-meaning but massively overpriced and defective health care law.
The concern here is that something similar could happen with New START. If the Republicans really want to deal up another defeat for Obama, they could effectively smother the treaty and further strain our relationship with the only other country in the world with the capability to threaten our nation’s existence. Or, in this effort to be obstinate, President Obama could conceivably cobble together enough votes to pass New START regardless, once again saddling the country with something that may have been fixed to provide more advantage had the Republicans been engaged. The Senate needs to do the right thing, give the treaty the attention it deserves, and ratify or reject it on its merits.
New START Treaty
G.O.P. Opposition Dims Hope for Arms Treaty With Russia
By PETER BAKER, NYT
November 16, 2010
Lugar becomes center of gravity on New START
Posted By Josh Rogin Monday, September 13, 2010
Key GOP senator deals blow to lame-duck vote on Russia arms treaty
By J. Taylor Rushing – 11/16/10 The Hill