The predictable pessimism over New START is growing. The far right is stirring, leading to dour predictions from some in the mainstream media and some progressives. And now today we have the breaking news that the New York Times op-ed page gave black-helicopter seeing John Bolton and torture-enabler John Yoo space to stun absolutely no one with a drab and redundant op-ed opposing the START treaty. Oh no, this changes everything! Except it doesn’t.
While the New York Times oped page may have thought it interesting to confirm that the far right opposes the START treaty, no one else should. Instead of following the Bolton-Heritage crowd noise, reporters and START followers should pay attention to three things when looking at the prospects for START.
First, the New START vote ultimately will not be determined just by Republicans. It will also be determined by Harry Reid’s willingness to push for a floor vote.
To win the vote, Reid and the White House have to be willing to lose the vote. The danger now is that all the hemming and hawing from the far-right makes Reid and the White House lose their nerve.
Sure, by needing 67 votes, Republicans will ultimately decide if the treaty gets ratified. And assuming Reid were to get New START to a floor vote Republicans may stand unified in opposition based of some procedural mumbo jumbo. This is a very real possibility – see Don’t Ask Don’t Tell where pro-repeal Senators stood unified in opposition because of some asinine procedural justification. But while the Republicans can certainly use any procedural complaint to justify a no-vote, this will always be the case.
What should light a fire under Reid is that the chances of the START treaty getting ratified in the new congress are very very slim. In essence, it’s now or never. So no matter what the far-right fringe says over the next six weeks, it is still worth it for Democrats to force a vote. The worst thing would be to allow Republicans to kill this treaty quietly next year by just ignoring it. If they are going to kill it, make the GOP do it publicly.
Second, the Republican leadership has never said they oppose the treaty.
Despite ample evidence of the craziness of the current Republican party, there is some reason to believe that they really don’t want to be the ones to kill a treaty that will endanger the nuclear security of the United States. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), seen as the most influential player on this issue, has in the past warned of the dangers of not having a monitoring or inspections regime of Russia’s nuclear weapons.
Importantly, the Republican leadership has also never taken a position against the treaty. The Republican Policy Committee did send out a mealy mouth letter this week telling its senators that while everything the Administration says about START may actually be true, they should still call for a delay in the treaty vote anyway. But calling for a delay is not the same thing as saying no. If Republicans really wanted to vote no, they would simply say they are voting no — especially now at the height of their political bravado. Instead, the Senate Republican leadership has actually said that they hope they can pass the START treaty, but will do so only if more money is provided for nuclear weapons modernization.
Third, Kyl doesn’t have all the leverage, because if the treaty is killed, Kyl’s nuclear pork is likely dead as well.
Kyl has been publicly silent for months, as he is engaged in some back room negotiations with the Administration. Kyl is essentially holding the treaty hostage in an effort to get a massive amount pork for the nuclear weapons complex. While Kyl has leverage because he is holding a gun to START’s head, ultimately the Administration and Senate Democrats have leverage too since they can hold a gun to the nuclear pork Kyl so desperately craves.
Kyl should know that if START is killed the bipartisan consensus that has emerged on nuclear funding will also be destroyed. While the Administration and the Democratic congress have already funded massive increases in the nuclear complex for next year, they haven’t funded anything for the out-years. This means that the Democratic Senate could easily kill any additional funding for the nuclear pork that Republicans like Kyl are so fervently pursuing. As Stephen Young points out, by appointing an independent review panel to assess two nuclear facilities, Energy Secretary Stephen Chu maybe laying the groundwork for their cancellation should New START fail. In other words, Kyl may lose his precious pork if he kills the treaty.