The Senate Foreign Relations Committee just voted 14-4 to approve the New START Treaty. The treaty got strong bipartisan support with Republicans Bob Corker (R-TN), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and Richard Lugar (R-IN) all voting in support. This is a huge accomplishment and should make the ratification by the full Senate all but inevitable.
The Foreign Relations committee was not friendly territory for this treaty. It is packed on the Republican side with very conservative Senators from Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Idaho, and Indiana. These states are anything about liberal. While Richard Lugar has long been a leader on nuclear issues, getting Corker and Isakson is a real coup and clears the path for more moderate Senate Republicans to vote for the treaty.
To get to 67 senators, all the Administration needs is at least 5 more Republicans in addition to Lugar, Corker, and Isakson – there are 59 votes from the non-Republican Senators. There are at least three likely votes from Republicans from New England (Snowe (R-ME), Collins (R-ME), Brown (R-MA)), Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Bob Bennett (R-UT) have already said they hope to support it. With those 8 Republicans the START treaty would pass. In addition to those eight though, Senators Voinovich (R-OH), Hatch (R-UT), Grassley (R-IA), Gregg (R-NH), Murkowski (R-AK), Lemieux (R-FL), McCain (R-AZ), Graham (R-SC), and Cochran (R-MS) are all potential yes votes as well. In other words, now that Corker and Isakson have in a sense broken the dam of Republican resistance, getting to 67 is not as arduous as it may have once seemed.
But there is a chance that the Democrats in the Senate will grab defeat from the jaws of victory.
Instead, of fast-tracking the treaty to the floor and getting it done, Senator Kerry and Senator Lugar both called for it to wait until after the election when the partisan climate will apparently have cooled. This is a mistake. Their argument makes much less sense in the aftermath of the committee vote. We are – at this very moment – in the midst of a heated partisan election environment and the treaty just got two very conservative southern Republicans to vote for it. Also, it is not as if the New START treaty is setting the campaign trail ablaze.
The momentum is on the treaty’s side now and it is unknown how Republicans will react to voting for the treaty in the lame duck. Additionally, after the November election the Republican presidential primary will begin in earnest and, as Mitt Romney op-ed in July reminds us, this could become easy right-wing political fodder.
In fact, the political moment may be ideal for Reid to bring up the treaty. Many Republicans in the Senate are smarting after tea party extremist Christine O’Donnell’s victory, which has only made Republicans look even more extreme. New START could give Republicans an opportunity to demonstrate a degree of moderation and seriousness about governing, especially to pundits inside the beltway like David Broder.
And while Republicans may fear giving Obama a “victory” before the election, if the treaty was backed by the Republican leadership of Kyl and McConnell it would likely garner around 90 votes – essentially denying the Administration its ability to claim a partisan victory. The Administration might point to New START’s ratification as an accomplishment, but Republicans could easily adopt the pro-START talking points – this was a modest treaty that is merely extending a treaty negotiated by Ronald Reagan. New START would hardly be something that the Obama administration could campaign on in the November elections, nor is it that politically salient.
This scenario may sound preposterous, but the fact is that many (if not a majority) of Republicans don’t want to vote against this treaty. A year ago Jon Kyl even warned of the dangers of the expiration of the START treaty and one wonders if Kyl didn’t give tacit approval to Corker and Isakson to vote for the treaty – after all Corker was pretty much in lock step with Kyl before the August recess. It’s clear that Kyl wants to essentially hold this treaty hostage in an effort to kill off Obama’s larger nuclear agenda and if he is able to delay vote into the new year that is exactly what he will do. But Democrats should know that they have the leverage of being able to force a vote on something that the majority of Republicans don’t really want to vote against.