New START Real Estate

Republican opposition to ratifying the arms-control agreement with Russia is all about leverage.

President Obama and Senate Republicans—led by Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ)—are locked in an intense negotiation over the “New START” treaty signed by Washington and Moscow last April. As often happens in a negotiation, tempers are fraying, and the rhetoric from both sides has obscured what’s really going on.

Senator Kyl says he’s concluded there isn’t time for the Senate to consider the treaty during the upcoming lame-duck session in December “given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization.” He and his Republican colleagues insist that they are merely trying to ensure that the treaty receives the same careful consideration that other arms-control treaties have received in the past.

The New York Times, on the other hand, declares: “The treaty is so central to this country’s national security, and the objections from Mr. Kyl—and apparently the whole Republican leadership—are so absurd that the only explanation is their limitless desire to deny President Obama any legislative success.”

In reality, Senator Kyl is almost certainly right that there won’t be time to consider New START in December. The lame-duck session is expected to last only three weeks (four at most, if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) takes the unprecedented step of keeping the Senate in session literally through Christmas Eve). During this time, Congress absolutely must pass legislation to keep the government open and decide what to do about the expiring Bush tax cuts—both of which present contentious questions that Congress and the administration have yet to resolve. In addition, Leader Reid has promised to bring up controversial immigration legislation, the Defense Authorization Act is pending and a food safety bill has already been announced as the first order of business.

Beyond this, there are two issues the Democrats are eager for Congress to act on this year because they will become harder next year: repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and approving New START. Either one of these would require at least a week of floor time in the Senate. It is hard to imagine finding enough time in December for the Senate to act on both. The Obama administration and the Democratic leadership therefore are going to have to choose. And if forced to choose, there is little doubt they will pick repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” over approving New START.

Two considerations dictate this choice. First, as a matter of domestic politics, the gay community is unquestionably more important to the Democratic Party than the arms-control community. Second, while New START will become harder next year, Republican control of the House of Representatives ensures that repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” will become impossible. The Democrats can explain to the arms-control community why they set New START aside, but they can’t explain to the gay community why they didn’t exhaust every possibility for repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” before the window for action slammed shut.

In the end, therefore, New START will slip to next year, less because of Senator Kyl than because the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership will decide that it’s not actually their top priority.

Proponents of New START will quarrel with this characterization, arguing that if only the Republican leadership would cooperate, New START could be approved in a few days rather than requiring a week or more of floor time. This view misapprehends how the Senate acts on controversial matters. A relatively small number of lawmakers, led by Senators Jim DeMint (R-SC) and James Inhofe (R-OK), have announced their opposition to the treaty. Under Senate rules, they are entitled to be heard, and neither the Republican nor the Democratic leadership can prevent them from prolonging consideration of the treaty.

Senator Kyl has never indicated that he opposes the treaty. Rather, he has been using the occasion of treaty consideration to negotiate with the Obama administration over the future of the U.S. nuclear-weapons complex.

Senator Kyl has long been concerned that the United States is underinvesting in the U.S. nuclear-weapons infrastructure—the weapons laboratories, industrial facilities, and human capital necessary to maintain our nuclear weapons. He believes that this problem becomes increasingly critical as the atomic arsenal is cut pursuant to arms-control treaties. The fewer nuclear weapons we have, he argues, the more essential it is that the ones we have left be safe and reliable.

The Obama administration correctly anticipated that this concern could complicate Senate approval of the New START treaty. That’s why coincident to transmitting New START to the Senate last May, President Obama sent Congress a ten-year, $80 billion plan to modernize the nuclear-weapons complex.

Senator Kyl welcomed the president’s attention to the issue, but rejected the administration plan as insufficient, pointing out that only about $10 billion of the $80 billion was new money. He pressed the administration for a greater commitment to modernization—something that does not come easily to a president who has promised to try to abolish nuclear weapons.

The Obama administration continued talking to Senator Kyl—more than thirty times since last May, according to a fact sheet put out by the vice president’s office. But apparently they despaired of trying to persuade him to accept their $80 billion plan, because they spent most of the fall trying to find eight other Republican senators to reach the sixty-seven votes required to approve the treaty.