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The Arms Control Association is an "exceptional organization that effectively addresses pressing national and international challenges with an impact that is disproportionate to its small size." 

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
Obama Pushes for Vote on New START
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Tom Z. Collina

Months of quiet negotiations between the White House and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) broke down in November after Kyl announced he did not think there would be time to vote on the treaty in the current postelection session of Congress.

President Barack Obama responded by upping the ante and calling for a Senate vote on New START, with or without Kyl’s support. “It is a national security imperative that the United States ratify the New START treaty this year,” Obama told White House reporters Nov. 18. “I’m confident that we should be able to get the votes,” he said. Administration talks with the Republican leadership are continuing.

Alluding to the postelection political environment in Washington, Obama told reporters Nov. 20 in Lisbon that “there’s no other reason not to [ratify New START] than the fact that Washington has become a very partisan place.” He added, “My expectation is that my Republican friends in the Senate will ultimately conclude that it makes sense for us to do this.”

The apparent failure in talks with Kyl, who represents the Senate Republican leadership, means that the White House cannot count on him to deliver Republican votes for New START. Instead the Obama administration may need to find Republican senators who would be willing to split from their party and vote for the treaty. Signed by the United States and Russia in April, the pact currently needs nine Republican votes to pass the full Senate, but will need 14 next year after new senators take office in January. Under the Constitution, the Senate must approve treaties with a two-thirds majority, or 67 votes, before they can be ratified by the president.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the only Republican to openly support a New START vote this year, told reporters Nov. 17 that the treaty should be brought up for a floor vote even if there is no deal with Kyl. “I think when it finally comes down to it, we have [a] sufficient number of senators who do have a sense of our national security. This is the time, this is the priority. Do it,” he said.

Aiming for a Deal

The Obama administration had been maneuvering to avoid a partisan showdown over New START by working out a deal with Senate Republican leaders in advance. According to a Nov. 17 White House timeline, administration officials have met or talked with Kyl or his staff about the treaty at least 30 times since August 2009, including direct contact by Vice President Joe Biden. These discussions dealt mainly with Kyl’s concern that the nuclear weapons budget for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) was not funded adequately, administration officials said.

In February, the administration requested an increase of 10 percent over fiscal year 2010 in the fiscal year 2011 budget. The administration successfully pressed Congress to include the increase in the continuing resolution for fiscal year 2011 that Congress passed in late September. Continuing resolutions, which provide funding to the government when Congress has not passed appropriations bills, generally keep spending at the previous year’s level for most agencies. In May, the White House announced it would spend $80 billion on the NNSA over the next decade, an increase of $10 billion, or 14 percent, over the baseline budget, along with $100 billion for the Pentagon to fund upgrades to strategic delivery systems.

Kyl, however, continued to argue that the $80 billion over 10 years for the NNSA was not enough and that he wanted to see the increases reflected in the fiscal year 2012 budget. Administration budgets normally are not released until February of the preceding fiscal year, so the fiscal year 2012 budget would not be released until next February. Kyl told Reuters Aug. 4 that because it would be difficult to finalize these numbers before the November election, the Senate might need to wait until a postelection session to vote on New START this year.

On Nov. 12, Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller, U.S. Strategic Command head Gen. Kevin Chilton, and NNSA Principal Deputy Administrator Neile Miller flew to Arizona to meet in person with Kyl and his staff to brief Kyl on the administration’s new estimates for the NNSA weapons activities budget. According to administration officials, during the three-hour meeting they told Kyl that the fiscal year 2012 budget request had been increased by $600 million to $7.6 billion, that funding would increase by $4.1 billion over the next five years, and that the 10-year total was now $85 billion, or $15 billion (21 percent) above the baseline. It is highly unusual to have finalized 2012 budget numbers this early in the process, White House officials said.

White House officials apparently thought they had a deal. Gary Samore, the National Security Council coordinator for arms control and nonproliferation, said Nov. 18 at a roundtable discussion with journalists that after the Nov. 12 meeting, the two sides had “reached basic agreement on what that funding level should be,” according to Global Security Newswire. Kyl said, “We’ve probably got all we’re going to get out of them in terms of dollar commitments,” The New York Times reported Nov. 25.

Those comments came after Kyl’s surprise announcement Nov. 16 that he “did not think” the treaty could be completed in the postelection session given the “complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization.” In a statement issued by his office, Kyl said he appreciated “the recent effort by the Administration to address some of the issues that we have raised” and that he looked forward to continuing to work with administration officials.

White House officials and their Senate allies expressed frustration. At a Nov. 17 press conference, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, which approved the treaty Sept. 16 with a bipartisan 14-4 vote, said that, after months of talks, Kyl had no right now to say there was not enough time to vote. Kerry said he had delayed a committee vote over the summer, at Republicans’ request, to give them more time. (See ACT, October 2010.) “As of now, there is no substantive disagreement on this treaty,” said Kerry.

“It was Senator Kyl himself who suggested that the lame duck [postelection session] would be an appropriate time to look at the [New] START treaty,” a senior administration official told The Cable Nov. 19. “It’s ready for a vote and we had some expectation, although not a guarantee, that the lame duck was a possibility.” Kyl’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Lugar explained his Republican colleagues’ behavior to The Cable by saying, “Sometimes when you prefer not to vote, you attempt to find reasons not to vote.”

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who controls the Senate schedule, said in a Nov. 17 statement, “I assure Senator Kyl and others concerned about the fate of this treaty that the Senate will be in session after Thanksgiving and will have time to consider and ratify it.” The Senate returned Nov. 29.

Obama’s Full-Court Press

After Kyl’s Nov. 16 statement, the White House quickly stepped up its efforts to court moderate Republicans to vote for New START. On Nov. 18, Obama hosted a White House meeting of a bipartisan group of former national security officials, including three former secretaries of state, James A. Baker, Henry Kissinger, and Madeleine Albright; former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft; and former Secretary of Defense William Perry. Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Marine Gen. James Cartwright also attended the meeting.

Obama stressed that a treaty vote could not be postponed until 2011 and that the consequences of failure to ratify would be significant. “This is not a matter that can be delayed,” Obama told reporters after the session. “Every month that goes by without a treaty means that we are not able to verify what’s going on on the ground in Russia. And if we delay indefinitely, American leadership on nonproliferation and America’s national security will be weakened,” he said. U.S. on-site monitoring of Russian strategic weapons ended Dec. 5, 2009, when the original START expired.

In his Nov. 20 radio address, Obama said that “Russia has been indispensable to our efforts to enforce strong sanctions on Iran, to secure loose nuclear material from terrorists, and to equip our troops in Afghanistan. All of this will be put to risk if the Senate does not pass the New START treaty.”

At Washington’s request, Russia also canceled its planned sale of the S-300 anti-aircraft system to Tehran.

Obama took his message to the Nov. 19-20 NATO summit in Lisbon, where U.S. allies overwhelmingly spoke in support of New START. “[T]the message that I’ve received since I’ve arrived from my fellow leaders here at NATO could not be clearer—New START will strengthen our alliance, and it will strengthen European security,” Obama told reporters Nov. 19.

“We see this treaty as a prologue, as an entrance to start talks about substrategic weaponry,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis said Nov. 20, appearing with the foreign ministers of Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, Latvia, and Norway, who all called for New START ratification. “We who are living in eastern Europe especially, know this,” he said. New START, which would reduce U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals by about 30 percent from current treaty levels, does not cover short-range weapons deployed by the United States and Russia in Europe. Obama has said that once New START is in force, he intends to initiate a new round of talks with Russia on tactical, or substrategic, nuclear weapons.

Administration officials also point out that, without ratification, congressional support for increases to the NNSA budget to modernize the nuclear weapons production complex may falter. “Support for the treaty also brings support for modernization of the U.S. nuclear enterprise,” Gates said Nov. 20 in Santiago, Chile. “I think the failure to ratify the treaty puts that at high risk.”

At a Nov. 17 press conference with Kerry and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Lugar was blunt: “[W]e are at a point where we’re unlikely to have either the treaty or modernization unless we get real.”

Kyl told NBC’s Meet the Press Nov. 28 that he saw little chance that New START could be completed this year, unless Reid allowed “a couple of weeks for full debate and amendment.” Kyl and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) sent a Nov. 24 memo to Republican colleagues saying that the administration’s revised NNSA budget plan addressed some but not all of their concerns. In particular, Kyl and Corker wrote, the administration should seek “responsible advance funding mechanisms” for the NNSA, such as “three-year rolling funding” or a commitment to seek advance funding in fiscal year 2013.

Appearing on the same show with Kyl, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), the majority whip, responded that there was time to debate the issues and hold a vote “in a responsible way before we break for Christmas.”

Some formerly skeptical Republican senators appear to be leaning Durbin’s way.  For example, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading Republican voice on defense issues who has been highly critical of the treaty, told ABC’s Good Morning America Nov. 30, “I believe we can move forward” with the treaty by the end of the year. Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) has suggested in comments to the media that he also is leaning toward its ratification this year.

When asked Nov. 30 if New START would be voted on this year, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) indicated he was not opposed and said,  “[I]t will be up to the majority leader, Senator Reid, to decide.”