Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) went on the NewsHour last night and artfully dodged whether he would support the START treaty, saying initially that he hadn’t read it yet, despite — as Senator Diane Feinstein noted — it is only 17 pages long. This is consistent with what Josh Rogin reported that GOP Senators haven’t yet decided whether they will support or oppose the treaty. While Kyl stayed coy, what became clear throughout the interview is Kyl will not support or oppose the treaty on its merits.
Importantly, Kyl subtly walked back from one of his previous claims that the Senate would not support the treaty if the Russians issued a unilateral statement threatening to withdraw from the treaty because of missile defense. The Russians issued such a statement — a statement that has zero practical impact -but this raised concerns that Kyl would use this symbolic measure as an excuse to kill the treaty. He still might, but when asked pointedly by Jim Lehrer if that was a “deal-breaker or just troubling,” Kyl responded by only saying: “It’s troubling.”
While this shift marked an important climb down, Kyl also effectively laid out what the President needed to do to buy his vote for ratification. Claiming that he would of course scrutinize the treaty, Kyl spent nearly all his time throughout the interview mentioning issues not connected to START — he mentioned nuclear modernization seven times for instance. He was sending a clear signal throughout the interview that his support for New START doesn’t really depend on the treaty itself, but on whether the Administration meets his demand to spend even more on nuclear modernization. Kyl explained that the:
other factor that will bear on my support for this treaty, and that is the modernization plan that the president must submit to the Congress to help take care of our nuclear weapons complex and our nuclear deterrent. Those two things go hand in hand. … I can tell you this, that I think the Senate will find it very hard to support this treaty if there is not a robust modernization plan. … I’m just saying there is a connection between this treaty and the modernization program.
This Sunbelt shakedown is particularly ridiculous, given that the Obama administration in their new budget just dramatically increased the money going to the nuclear weapons infrastructure. But Kyl now wants them to double that increase and he is threatening to block ratification if the Administration doesn’t adhere to his demands.
Throughout the START ratification process a major question will be how far the Administration is willing to go to try to get Kyl. The Administration should stand firm and realize that Kyl is playing a losing hand. This treaty has overwhelming bipartisan support amongst serious foreign policy leaders and GOP obstructionism in the Senate would have deadly serious consequences for US national security.