START treaty test

Our view: This week's Senate vote on a major arms control agreement with Russia will show whether the GOP is ready to lead or remains stuck in obstruction mode

December 21, 2010

The bipartisan spirit evident in Congress' recent passage of major tax-cut legislation and repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy banning gays from serving openly in the military seems to have evaporated over the weekend in the roll up to a vote on the New START arms control treaty with the Russians. Senate debate on the measure is scheduled to start today, and the outlook for the treaty's success is unusually uncertain compared to major arms control agreements of the past at this stage.

President Barack Obama has argued that the treaty's provisions for reductions in nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles and arrangements for on-site inspections of weapons sites are vital to resetting diplomatic relations with Russia. He has been pushing for passage of the measure in the lame-duck Congress that ends this month. But it seems Republican senators are suddenly rethinking the virtues of cooperating with the president if there's any chance that might help Mr. Obama claim a major foreign policy accomplishment.

For evidence that Republican opponents of New START have lost sight of the stakes involved in reducing the world's nuclear arsenals, one need look no further than South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham. This purported leader on national security issues, who had once expressed support for the idea of resuming the arms reduction inspection regime that's been in place since the Reagan administration, said on Sunday that he would not vote for the pact. He said the "poisoned" mood of the current congressional session has offended his sensibilities.

It's been bad enough to listen to Republicans worry that nonbinding language in the preamble to the treaty might somehow be interpreted as a limit on America's ability to construct missile defense shields, despite all assertions to the contrary, or to hear Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell claim that the treaty, which has been debated longer than the previous three U.S.-Russian/Soviet arms control pacts combined, was being rushed. But now the nation's foreign policy depends on whether Republicans are sad that they lost a lopsided vote on repealing "don't ask, don't tell"?

It's hard to escape the conclusion that what Senate Republicans want more than to ensure the nation's security with a treaty endorsed by half a dozen former GOP secretaries of state and defense is to hand Mr. Obama a big foreign policy defeat. Senator McConnell said as much recently when he admitted that his top priority for the next two years would be to make sure Mr. Obama is a one-term president.

So it was no real surprise when Senator McConnell announced on Sunday he would oppose ratification of the New START treaty, as did Sen. John Kyl of Arizona, whose support the White House had bent over backward to try to get by offering a 10-year, $80 billion nuclear forces modernization program to assuage his concerns. Both men say they only want to "improve" the treaty's terms, though they are fully aware that at this stage any attempt to change the agreement's language or renegotiate provisions that have already been approved by Mr. Obama and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would effectively kill it — a warning reiterated by Moscow on Monday.

Never mind that the original START I treaty was one of Ronald Reagan's greatest contributions to arms control and that, historically, its successors have sailed through the Senate with large bipartisan majorities. As far as Senators McConnell, Kyl and Graham are concerned, when it comes to anything that might possibly make Mr. Obama look good, they'll never take "yes" for an answer. Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, said he still thinks there are enough votes to ratify the treaty, which would require at least nine GOP senators to sign on to win the 67 votes needed for passage. It's a virtual certainty that Senators McConnell and Kyl will do everything in their power to lobby their wavering GOP colleagues against the treaty, so the vote scheduled for this week will be a crucial test of whether Republicans in Congress, newly emboldened by their midterm election gains, intend to focus on doing what's best for the country or to continue pursuing the same strategy of obstruction and delay they have followed since 2008.

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