With the President and the rest of his administration stating clearly that one of their top priorities during the lame duck is the ratification of the New START treaty, the stakes have been raised for the GOP leadership in the Senate.
The START treaty is likely to be one of the first real test of whether the GOP can actually take governing seriously. After all the New START treaty isn’t some left wing conspiratorial plot. It extends and updates a treaty negotiated by Ronald Reagan. It has the unanimous support of the military and of a who’s who of senior Republican foreign policy officials. On MSNBC, CAP President John Podesta explained that New START will clarify where Mitch McConnell and the Republican leadership stands. Podesta states:
Will Senator McConnell… get [START] done and go along with [the President]. … If he says no we are just going to be into obstructionism and the just-say-no-party — we’ll at least know where the Republican leadership stands.
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The prospects of the treaty getting the 67 votes needed for ratification look somewhat promising, given that three Republicans (Richard Lugar, Bob Corker, and Johnny Isakson) have already voted for the treaty in committee and that the New England Republicans, as well as a scattering of other moderates, would likely vote for it.
So Mitch McConnell faces a clear dilemma. He can block START just to deny Obama a perceived victory and appease some Senate hardliners, but risk making Republicans look like a petty obstructionist far right party that is unfit to govern. Or, alternatively, he can support START, look like you are serious about governing the country and about bipartisanship, but risk some right wing ire and potentially give the President a feather to put in his cap.
From a purely political perspective for McConnell, passing START actually makes a lot of sense. The START treaty does not move the political needle very much in either direction, which makes it the perfect issue to show some bipartisanship. What better subject to show you are reasonable and can compromise than one that was both absent from the election and that few in the tea party (the people most opposed to compromise) care about. Nine months from now as McConnell is opposing and obstructing everything in sight, he can still point to the GOP’s support for START as evidence that Republicans are not just the “party of no.”
What most expect is for McConnell to keep on doing what he has been doing — obstruct and oppose — but given the new spotlight on the GOP that could be a politically dubious stance for them to take, especially since the treaty is seen as something that is just basic commonsense. As the Anchorage Daily News editorialized today:
Obama wants Senate ratification of an important treaty with Russia; Republicans blocked that pre-election. Really, if politicians can’t agree on not obliterating the planet, what can they agree on?
Should the GOP oppose or obstruct START explicitly, almost every editorial board in the country will rip them and there will be countless stories about the far-right shift of the Republican party. Foreign policy heavies like James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, George Schultz, among others, will likely rebuke the leadership and perhaps even leave the party. Therefore if McConnell is willing to oppose START it provides clear evidence that their partisan obstructionism and their significant lurch to the right over the last two years was not just some temporary tactical approach.
While it may not come as shock to anyone who has followed politics recently that the GOP will be both partisan and extreme, the difference now is that the GOP is entering a two year period where they have to prove they can actually be trusted with governing the country. Polls, such as the ABC/Washington Post poll from just before the election indicated that just 40 percent of the country trusted Republicans with governing, compared to 45 percent for Democrats. In other words, being the “party of no” was good enough to be entrusted to provide a check on the administration, but over the next two years such an approach is unlikely to be good enough to be entrusted with running the country.