Democrats Scramble To Save Votes To Ratify Nuclear Pact

WASHINGTON — The top two Senate Republicans declared Sunday that they would vote against President Obama’s nuclear treaty with Russia as the bipartisan spirit of last week’s tax-cut deal devolved into a sharp battle over national security in the waning days of the session. With some prominent Republicans angry over passage of legislation ending the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military, the mood in the Senate turned increasingly divisive and Mr. Obama and Democratic lawmakers scrambled to hold together a coalition to approve the treaty.

(New York Times)

WASHINGTON — The top two Senate Republicans declared Sunday that they would vote against President Obama’s nuclear treaty with Russia as the bipartisan spirit of last week’s tax-cut deal devolved into a sharp battle over national security in the waning days of the session.

With some prominent Republicans angry over passage of legislation ending the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military, the mood in the Senate turned increasingly divisive and Mr. Obama and Democratic lawmakers scrambled to hold together a coalition to approve the treaty.

Senator Harry M. Reid, the Democratic majority leader, moved to hold a vote on Tuesday to close off debate, saying, “You either want to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists or you don’t.” But the fate of the treaty, known as New Start, was complicated by a deadlock over government spending and the political subtext about whether the pact’s approval would rejuvenate a weakened president after his party’s midterm election defeat.

For the second day, Mr. Obama’s supporters defeated a Republican amendment that would have blocked approval of the treaty by the end of the year. But the 60-to-32 vote left them short of the two-thirds majority they will need for final approval, and the White House lost a Republican it had hoped would join them on the decisive vote expected later this week.

The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, said Sunday he would vote against President Obama's nuclear treaty with Russia.

The debate on the Senate floor came hours after Senators Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican leaders in the upper chamber, said they would vote against the treaty. While their opposition was not a surprise, the question was how aggressively Mr. McConnell in particular would lobby the handful of wavering Republicans who will decide the matter.

“I’ve decided that I cannot support the treaty,” Senator McConnell said on “State of the Union” on CNN. “I think the verification provisions are inadequate and I do worry about the missile-defense implications of it.” While the treaty was signed eight months ago, he said, “rushing it right before Christmas, it strikes me as trying to jam us.”

One Republican who had previously signaled willingness to support the treaty, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, suggested Sunday that he would not. Mr. Graham cited the sour mood engendered by Democrats forcing votes on other topics in recent days, including the bill on gays in the military that passed Saturday. “If you really want to have a chance of passing Start, you better start over and do it in the next Congress because this lame duck has been poisoned,” Mr. Graham said on “Face the Nation” on CBS.

“I’m not going to vote for Start,” he added, “until I hear from the Russians that they understand we can develop four stages of missile defense, and if we do, they won’t withdraw from the treaty.”

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other Democrats said they were still confident they had enough votes, but the rapidly evolving situation left many feeling nervous at the end of a lame-duck session that has brought Mr. Obama several big victories. The president reached a tax cut compromise with Republicans by defying his liberal base, then won repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” on Saturday when a number of moderate Republicans joined Democrats to end the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. The treaty would be another significant victory.

The down-to-the-wire suspense is unusual in the annals of arms control votes in the Senate. Most such treaties that reached the floor won by overwhelming margins if not unanimously. The rare arms control treaties to fail were generally never brought to a vote, with one exception being the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, which Mr. Kyl helped defeat in 1999.

Never has a major nuclear arms control treaty been approved during a lame-duck session or without the support of the Senate minority leader. What makes the fierce showdown over this treaty so surprising is that compared with most of its predecessors, it is a relatively modest agreement that mainly resumes on-site inspections that lapsed last year and pares down each side’s deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 and deployed launchers to 700.

Republican critics have zeroed in on what they consider important flaws, including its verification program, the failure to address smaller, tactical nuclear bombs and some nonbinding language in the preamble that they argue would inhibit future American missile defense plans.

Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, who also announced his opposition to the treaty, spoke with a reporter outside his office on Sunday.

Mr. Kyl, on “Fox News Sunday,” said he would vote against the treaty unless it was amended. “This treaty needs to be fixed,” he said.

The White House dismissed the statement by Mr. McConnell, who stood by Mr. Obama’s side just two days ago for the signing of the tax-cut agreement. “We respect Senator McConnell’s view, but weren’t surprised by it, and we certainly were not counting on his vote,” said Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman.

Mr. Kyl, however, was a different story. The White House had spent months negotiating with him in the hope of securing his support, including agreeing to a 10-year, $85 billion program to modernize the nation’s nuclear weapons complex.

Even after Mr. Kyl said last month that there was not enough time to deal with the treaty before the end of the year, the White House kept trying to win him over, an effort that appeared increasingly futile in recent days. Mr. Kyl led the Senate opposition to the treaty, with his statement on Sunday the final blow to the White House campaign.

Seeking to circumvent Mr. Kyl, the president worked the phones over the weekend, calling senators. Mr. Obama was firmly rejecting amendments because any changes to the treaty text would force both countries to return to the negotiating table. The amendment rejected by the Senate on Sunday, proposed by Senator Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho, would have inserted language into the preamble about the importance of tactical weapons.

“Let’s tell the negotiators, go back to the table and at least agree that the interrelationship between strategic and tactical weapons is a really, really important issue and we’re not just going to go on like we have over the last 40 years,” Mr. Risch said.

No Russian-American treaty has ever addressed tactical weapons, but the two sides have said they hoped to negotiate an agreement on them after New Start is ratified. Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, said Mr. Risch’s amendment would not curb tactical weapons.

“Not only would it not do that,” he said, “it would set back the effort to try to get those reductions because the Russians will not engage in that discussion if you can’t ratify the treaty.” For the treaty, Mr. Kerry added, passing the amendment would mean “it’s dead.”

Treaty supporters scrambled to lock down Republican support. To get the required two-thirds majority, the treaty needs nine Republican votes. Four Republicans have said they support it, two others voted for it in committee and seem likely to vote for final approval, and about seven or eight others have said they lean toward it or hope to vote for it if concerns were addressed.

As the battle over government spending continued, Mr. Reid on Sunday also moved to cut off debate on a stopgap measure that would finance the federal government through March 4 and impose a wage freeze for most federal workers. Republicans last week blocked a spending bill that would have covered operations until the end of the fiscal year on March 30.
 

New York Times