Starting today with the return of Congress to the lame-duck session, the countdown begins for the Obama Administration to successfully lobby for the ratification of the “Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty III” (henceforth New START) before the Senate. Given that New START is a treaty, it requires approval by 67 votes or 2/3rds of the Senate. Thus, even in the Democratically controlled lame-duck session, bipartisan support is required to reach the magic number of 67. The Obama administration itself admits that the window for passage of New START will close after January when the Republicans can claim the 6 seats won in the 2010 Mid-term election. Time is of the essence.
Prior to January, the Democrats need to peel off 8 votes from the bloc of 41 Republican Senators. It will be much easier for the Democrats to find 8 Republican votes from the 111th Congress than 14 votes from the 112th. Democrats need to hit the ground running once the lame-duck session starts and encourage Republicans to cross the aisle. Hopefully, national security concerns can transcend the naked partisanship that has increasingly become the norm.
One particularly encouraging example of bipartisanship was the passage of New START in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Committee voted 14-4 in favor of the treaty thanks to the wisdom and courage of Richard Lugar, R-Indiana; Bob Corker, R-Tennessee; and Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia. The ability to acquire 3 Republican votes out of a pool of 8 is certainly encouraging to Democrats, who need only find 5 more votes out of the remaining 33 Republicans (if the 8 Committee votes remain static for the floor vote). In spite of this positive trend, it could be argued that these pro-treaty Republicans in the Committee are the exception not the rule due to their extensive foreign policy experience (e.g. Lugar has been pushing for disarmament his whole career). Convincing 5 votes on the floor might be a whole lot harder than it sounds.
Obama has already begun to pursue a number of persuasion tactics in pursuit of these elusive 5 votes. Robert Kagan argues that the recent New York Times article, U.S. Vote Could Derail Russia Ties was “spoon-fed” to reporters by the Obama administration in order to make Republicans politically liable if relations with Russia go down the tubes. Essentially, Obama has publicly wiped his hands clean, allowing Republicans to fall on their own swords if US-Russia tensions reemerge. The threat of political blowback, resulting from a crash in US-Russia relations, might push some “on the fence” Republicans firmly onto the Democratic side. Another tactic to gain Republican support has been the inclusion of a 10 year, $80 billion nuclear weapons modernization program in the budget. While New START will quantitatively reduce our nuclear stockpile, we will qualitatively improve our existing supply with this modernization program. Obama hopes that the combination of the modernization program and the political threats will act as a carrot and stick to compel moderate Republicans to vote for the Treaty.
Notwithstanding these instances of bipartisanship and steady political pressure, the ratification of New START is far from certain. The lame-duck Congress has a number of pressing and divisive issues on its plate such as the extension of the Bush era tax cuts, the fate of “Don‘t Ask, Don’t Tell”, and the pro-immigration DREAM act. There is a risk that New START will get lost in the shuffle amongst these contentious issues.
Help maintain the momentum for New START by contacting your senator and urging their support.
Stay tuned as these events will unfold rapidly in the coming month. Next week, I will offer a point-by-point refutation of the common objections that are lodged against New START.
By Grant Potter, National Security Intern