Top Senate leaders are locked in negotiations on how to move forward on a host of key agenda items to finish out the lame duck session, including ratification of the New START Treaty, repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and tax cuts, a jam packed schedule that could push the chamber into weekend work, once again.
Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev, is expected to have the chamber on Wednesday afternoon reconsider a vote first taken in September to start debate on a defense bill that contains a repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on gays serving openly in the armed forces.
Reid was negotiating at the back of the chamber for some time with a key Republican in the debate, Susan Collins of Maine, who supports repeal but has insisted on a full and open debate with amendments for opponents. One Democratic senator involved in the talks said the leader was offering a finite number of amendments, as many as five for each side.
Sen John McCain, R-Ariz, chief opponent of the repeal, said Wednesday that he is confident the votes are not there for repeal. A senior Senate GOP leadership aide echoed that sentiment to Fox, saying that five amendments can each be easily filibustered, leaving the abbreviated Senate calendar hamstrung in procedural moves. Any move forward, the aide added, would also break the GOP pledge to block any measure until tax cuts are extended and the government is funded.
Still, a prime supporter of repeal, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, sounded confident the votes would be there to strike down the 1993 law during the lame duck session. "The process is complicated, and it's all down to timing for the debate, but I do believe we have the votes," the senator predicted.
Meanwhile, talks continue on ratification of the New START Treaty with the likelihood of approval gaining steam. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass, the Administration's point man for Senate approval, was in deep conversations in the chamber with Republican skeptic, Sen Jon Kyl of Arizona. The talks moved off the floor and into Kyl's office just steps from the chamber.
Kyl has led GOP efforts to ensure a lengthy debate, as much as two weeks, and adequate amendment process.
As Kerry left Kyl's office, he told reporters, "It's really a question of the overall schedule...We're trying to make sure there is adequate (debate) time." The chairman said the debate on START could begin soon, as early as this weekend, but that the treaty is tied up with other negotiations on remaining agenda items.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, sounded an upbeat note on START on Wednesday, as well, saying one full week of debate is adequate enough. The senator sounded inclined to support ratification, commending the White House on being "very constructive" in talks with Republicans.
Graham agreed that senators are mainly down to a negotiation over the calendar, saying two substantive issues will soon be worked out -- money for modernization of the Oakridge nuclear facility and assurances on all four stages of the national missile defense program. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a member of the Foreign Relations panel and likely supporter of START, told reporters Wednesday, "There are still crossing of T's and dotting of I's going on, but we're getting there."
As for funding the government, one senior Senate GOP leadership aide told Fox, the Senate is likely to approve a stopgap spending measure to fund the government through 2011, scheduled to pass the House Wednesday with a dramatic reduction in its bottom line, and add a a nearly $18 billion omnibus spending measure on top. The broader bill does, however, represent a reduction in spending levels from what President Obama requests earlier in the year.
As for the new tax deal announced by Obama and Congressional Republican leaders, the left and the right seem to be intent on shooting holes through it.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC, decried the deficit spending and an extension of unemployment benefits. His opposition was echoed by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who said he has not yet decided on whether or not he will block the bill. "I may vote against cloture. I may vote against the bill," Coburn said, referring to a procedural move that requires 60 votes to shut down a filibuster.
"A lot of us are shocked at the price tag," said Corker, adding, "If we're going to pass it, we ought to offer other things to restrain spending," saying that he intended to try to offer just such a package when debate gets underway next week.