WASHINGTON – The White House is promising it will have the Senate votes to approve a major arms control treaty with Russia this year, one of President Barack Obama's top priorities. There is little evidence that is the case.
Democrats either will have to get a pivotal Republican senator, Jon Kyl of Arizona, to change his mind about the New START treaty after he said he does not think there can be a vote this year, or they will have to find eight other Republicans to support them. So far, they have only one, Indiana's Richard Lugar, who has made nonproliferation the defining issue of his long political career.
That means Obama needs seven Republicans who will agree that it is better for a vote to take place now than in the new year, when their party will have more power in the Senate. Those senators would have to defy their party's leaders and hand Obama a major political victory at a time when America's political winds are blowing overwhelmingly in the Republicans' favor.
There is no indication that will happen. In fact, the one Republican besides Lugar to support the treaty in an earlier committee vote, Bob Corker of Tennessee, is now supporting a delay.
Obama sees the treaty as an opening for improved relations with Russia and has argued that it is essential for U.S. national security. The treaty would reduce U.S. and Russian limits on strategic warheads and would set up new procedures to allow both countries to inspect each other's arsenals to verify compliance. U.S. inspectors left Russia after a previous treaty expired last year.
Republicans have called the new verifications procedures inadequate and argued that the treaty would limit U.S. missile defense options. Most Republican senators probably would vote against the treaty. Others have said they would follow Kyl's lead.
Kyl has argued that it does not make sense to reduce U.S. warheads until more is done to maintain and modernize the remaining arsenal. To answer Kyl's concerns, the Obama administration last week delivered a proposal to significantly boost funding for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.
Then Kyl shocked the administration on Tuesday by announcing that he had told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that he did not think the treaty could be brought up for a vote this year.
Supporters say the statement was not definitive, and they have not given up hope. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke to Kyl on Wednesday and the White House is sending information that Kyl had requested.
Obama also was using his bully pulpit to press the case. On Thursday, he planned to stop by a meeting on the treaty hosted by Vice President Joe Biden. Also invited were senior lawmakers and Republican statesmen who back the treaty, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.
While conceding that persuading Kyl to reverse his position is their best bet, White House officials and Lugar are asserting they could win enough Republican votes with or without Kyl's backing.
"I think we'll have enough votes to pass it" even without Kyl's support, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Wednesday.
The challenge of that approach was underscored when retiring Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, a moderate the White House probably would need for a successful vote, said Wednesday he had problems with the treaty unrelated to those raised by Kyl.
Democrats would have to win over Republicans quickly in the short legislative session remaining this year. It will be crowded with other priorities, including essential action on taxes and money to keep the government operating.
Perhaps their best hope is that Kyl is holding out for some yet unspoken concession. But he has given no indication that his intransigence is brinkmanship.
When pressed on the issue Wednesday, Kyl would only say, "We're talking in good faith."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Desmond Butler covers foreign affairs for The Associated Press.