Offering Nuclear Plus-ups, White House Awaits Kyl's Word on "New START"

(Nov. 15) -U.S. Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), shown last year, on Friday received an updated Obama administration proposal that includes $4.1 billion in new nuclear weapons complex spending over the next five years, officials said. Analysts said the plan was part of an effort to win Kyl's support for a new nuclear arms control treaty with Russia (Saul Loeb/Getty Images).
(Nov. 15) -U.S. Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), shown last year, on Friday received an updated Obama administration proposal that includes $4.1 billion in new nuclear weapons complex spending over the next five years, officials said. Analysts said the plan was part of an effort to win Kyl's support for a new nuclear arms control treaty with Russia (Saul Loeb/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- The Obama White House on Friday presented its revised plan for funding increases for the nuclear weapons complex budget to Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and other lawmakers viewed as crucial to ratification of the "New START" arms control agreement, according to government officials (see GSN, Nov. 9).

Administration officials reportedly flew to Arizona, Kyl's home state, to fill him in on how they propose to close gaps in their budget for modernizing aging nuclear weapons. A White House spokesman today declined comment on the matter.

The White House told Kyl and other lawmakers and staffs that it is prepared to spend another $4.1 billion on the nuclear complex over the next five years in a bid to get the arms pact ratified, the Washington Post reported on Saturday.

That would be on top of a $10 billion increase over the next decade that the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous arm of the Energy Department, initially promised last spring.

"The administration is saying, 'Whatever you want, Senator,'" said one former government official who has been following the issue. "I've never seen an administration so willing to tie its hands to this extent."

"This is an extremely credible effort on their part to show good faith on nuclear weapons," said one Senate aide privy to last week's briefings. "The key question for Republicans now is have they leveraged enough on nuclear weapons, or should they ask for more?"

Several current and former executive branch and congressional officials spoke on condition of not being named in this article because of the political sensitivities involved in talks between the White House and Capitol Hill.

A significant portion of the funds were expected to go toward two major construction projects aimed at revitalizing the U.S. capability to produce nuclear weapon materials.

Vice President Biden in September told lawmakers that new cost estimates for facilities to process uranium and perform chemical and metallurgical research -- as well as for efforts to extend the service lives of nuclear warheads -- would allow the administration to update its budget projections this fall.

With Congress back this week for a lame-duck session, all eyes are now on the Senate's minority whip. If Kyl is satisfied that the administration's revised plans for the nuclear complex are sufficient, many view him likely to lend his support to the treaty. Given his leadership role, Kyl has the potential to bring enough Republican fence-sitters along with him to attain the 67 votes required for ratification, Capitol Hill staff aides said.

The Arizona Republican has not yet offered a public reaction to the closed-door briefings. His office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

"I wouldn't be surprised if Kyl votes for the treaty," John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World, said in an interview early this month. "He publicly called the treaty benign. So I think there's a good chance he votes yes, after he gets a deal."

One Senate source said that even if Kyl opts not to vote for New START ratification, he might release fellow Republicans to vote their conscience on the matter, without negative ramifications for those who support the pact.

"It would certainly be better if Kyl were willing to vote for it," said this treaty backer. "But it's my understanding that if he no longer makes this a test of whether you're a Republican," it might be possible to find enough GOP votes for passage, the aide said.

Not everyone agrees.

"I'd say it's about 50-50" whether the Senate will ratify New START, "and if Kyl's against it, it's not happening," another staffer said late last week.

Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) might prove to be a bellwether on an upcoming vote. With the new uranium processing facility slated for construction at the Y-12 nuclear complex in his home state, Corker supported the September passage of a resolution in committee in favor New START. More recently, however, he expressed uncertainty as to whether he would vote for the accord on the Senate floor (see GSN, Oct. 5).

Still, based on informal discussions leading up to Friday's briefings, "I'm very hopeful" the bipartisan negotiations will result in a deal that allows the Senate to ratify the U.S.-Russia arms control accord, a senior administration official told Global Security Newswire in a November 10 telephone interview.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a final pitch for ratification in a commentary published today in the Washington Post.

President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in April. In it, each nation pledges to reduce its deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from a current cap of 2,200 by 2012. The agreement also would allow Washington and Moscow to verify nuclear weapon holdings through onsite inspections and data exchanges, following a nearly one-year lapse in such practices.

The Obama administration initially sought a ratification vote before the August recess, but Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) acceded to Republican requests for more time to study the accord before sending the package to the floor.

"I think it turned out to be the right [decision] because we got more Republican votes in the committee than I think we would have gotten, had we done the vote before the August recess," the senior administration official said.

The panel's September vote on the treaty won the support of all 11 Democrats and three Republicans: Ranking Minority Member Richard Lugar (Ind.), and Senators Corker and Johnny Isakson (Ga.).

Another four committee Republicans -- Senators Jim Risch (Idaho), John Barrasso (Wyo.), Roger Wicker (Miss.) and James Inhofe (Okla.) -- voted against the treaty (see GSN, Sept. 17).

For the most part, GOP senators have not declared how they would vote, with some exceptions. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) yesterday said he would support ratification if he becomes convinced that nuclear weapon modernization is adequately funded and that the treaty would not constrain U.S. missile defense plans.

Still, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warning there might be inadequate time to address New START during lame duck, some GOP lawmakers are now pressing to delay a floor vote until the 112th Congress convenes in January. Though the Democrats will remain in control of the Senate, Republicans strengthened their numbers by picking up another six seats in the November 2 elections.

The senior administration official would not address the possibility that getting the treaty through the Senate could be more difficult come January, but did cast doubt on the legitimacy of calls to further prolong study of the matter before a vote.

"There certainly have been a lot of offices in both parties that said, 'Oh, this is going to be pretty hard before the election, but I'm not sure why we couldn't do it in the lame duck,'" the official told GSN. "It would be an appropriate item for the lame-duck session."

As lawmakers return to Capitol Hill, angst over the issue of treaty ratification has been rising on both sides of the aisle.

Some Republicans have asserted that the administration has not taken seriously their concerns about whether the Obama White House is committed to maintaining viable nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles into the future. Despite Senate hearing testimony from key officials and some 900 responses to questions for the record, a number of important questions remain unanswered, according to a November 5 statement from the Senate Republican Policy Committee.

The message, circulated on Capitol Hill, said the administration to date had not divulged its plans to build a replacement for today's Minuteman 3 ICBMs, a new bomber aircraft, or a follow-on to the Air-Launched Cruise Missile. It also questioned whether the Obama team would construct robust missile defenses or conventionally armed long-range ballistic missiles, and in what time frames.

Some Capitol Hill sources cautioned, though, that the policy committee message did not accurately reflect the view of many Senate Republicans, whose votes might in fact swing either way on New START ratification. For all but a small handful of senators, nuclear weapon treaties and modernization are not high-profile matters and clearly take a back seat to issues like the economy, jobs and the war in Afghanistan.

The policy committee is chaired by Senator John Thune (R-S.D.), who is widely seen as staking out a conservative position on New START in the run-up to an anticipated bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

"Thune uses that as his leadership office -- that's what they call themselves," said one senior Senate Republican staffer.

For many other GOP senators, it is less a question of ideology and more a matter of simply making a deal, said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

"It's not political, it's transactional," he told GSN.

"For the vast middle of senators who really don't care, you have to show them how you'll get to 67, because they want to be on the winning side," said the Republican staffer. Even after last week's briefing, "they haven't done that yet."

"I think we have taken the Republican concerns very seriously," the senior administration official said last week. "We've known for a long time that Senator Kyl and others, including members of the Foreign Relations Committee, had concerns about the modernization issue. ... I think we've been quite focused on the modernization issue."

Asked why it took the White House until the 11th hour before the lame-duck session to present Kyl and others with a formal proposal for budget add-ons, several Capitol Hill and administration officials cited the lengthy process of compiling fiscal 2012-and-beyond budget figures that normally would take until late December to finalize.

In fact, among some Democrats, frustration has been mounting that the Obama administration has been too accommodating of Republican budget demands in its effort to win votes for treaty ratification. Obama's growing investment in the nuclear weapon sector could make it more difficult to make progress toward the eventual elimination of these arms, as he pledged in an April 2009 speech in Prague, they argue.

Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear strategy and arms control expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, alleged in a blog post last week that the White House had lost oversight of key NNSA appointees tasked with responding to congressional requests for information. Lewis asserted that some senior officials at the nuclear weapon agency used the Capitol Hill negotiations to aid Republicans in padding the NNSA budget.

If the price tag for the treaty becomes too high, it might become impossible to make a deal on Capitol Hill for ratification, Lewis and other New START supporters worry. That could leave the administration with no U.S-Russian treaty and the nuclear agency with little to no budget increase, the "Arms Control Wonk" blogger warned.

Obama "needs to start by learning to ride herd on his own damned bureaucracy -- the number of openly disloyal political appointees is stunning," Lewis wrote. "But after getting tough with his own team, Obama has to begin aggressively reaching out to Republican senators directly, not merely relying on finding a magic formula for Kyl (which might not exist), or hoping that others, like Senators Corker or Lugar, will do his dirty work for him."

The senior administration official said the White House continues to work hard to garner support for the treaty among both Democrats and Republicans.

"I guess I don't know what that means that we're too conciliatory or not tough enough on people. We need people in both parties to get to 67 -- we need a good number of people in both parties," the official said. "So we have to work with both sides."

Over the past few weeks, at least one senior NNSA official pitched to Kyl's staff the idea of funding the nuclear complex through a multiyear appropriation -- one that promises set dollar figures for years to come, rather than the traditional one-year-at-a-time approach, a Senate aide confirmed.

The idea of initiating a multiyear request for nuclear complex appropriations, though, had not been vetted through the White House, leading Lewis and others to conclude that NNSA was "freelancing" and, in doing so, undercutting what would become the official administration position on the matter.

As it stands today, neither the nuclear agency nor Senate Republicans appear to be pursuing the idea of multiyear appropriations for the nuclear complex, but that could change rapidly as the ongoing talks evolve, congressional aides said at press time.

The senior executive branch official said last week that informal discussions between NNSA leaders and Capitol Hill were to be expected in the run-up to a New START ratification vote, but there was no indication that the nuclear agency was running afoul of the White House.

"I don't know that I've known every conversation and [all] briefings that have occurred with Senate staff by NNSA or DOD," said the official, referring in the second instance to the Defense Department. "[The] routine business of government is that these conversations go on all the time. So accusing someone of freelancing is a very serious thing."

Like the Defense Department, headed by Gates, the National Nuclear Security Administration is led by a holdover from the Bush administration. Damien LaVera, a spokesman for NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino, told GSN last Tuesday that he would not comment on Lewis's specific allegations, but asserted that "this administration is fully committed to modernizing the nuclear arsenal and nuclear complex."

"I've spent a lot of time working closely with Tom D'Agostino and his top team," the senior administration official said the following day. "I don't get the sense that they are freelancing."

Faced with a heavy legislative agenda for lame duck, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has indicated he would bring the treaty up for floor debate and a vote by the end of the year only if the administration can assure him that at least 67 votes are locked down.

If the Senate fails to ratify the pact before January, few of its advocates imagine that Democrats in the chamber would support the $4.1 billion budget increase for the nuclear complex when the fiscal 2012 budget request goes to Capitol Hill in February.

"Kyl has less influence over the appropriators than he might think," even though he is a leading voice on security matters, said former NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks, who led START negotiations under then-President George H.W. Bush. He supports both New START and an increased budget for maintaining the nuclear arsenal.

"It would be hard for [the administration] not to request it now that they've briefed it," said one Senate staffer, imagining what might happen to the nuclear complex funding boosts if ratification fails. However, the Democratic-dominated Senate Appropriations Committee could come up with "ad infinitum" reasons why the nuclear projects do not require the level of funds requested, if Senate Republicans kill New START, the aide said.

The administration itself might be preparing to pull back on the plus-ups, too, in the event that New START goes down, according to Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists. He noted in a blog post last week that the Energy Department in October launched a new, independent review that might find that plans for the two large nuclear construction projects are too costly.

One Senate source would not rule out the idea that the treaty would return to the chamber floor before spring if it fails to go to a vote by year's end.

"I would expect [the Foreign Relations panel] to report it out in the 112th Congress in the first couple months of the new Congress," the aide said. "But then you're back to the question still of where is the Republican leadership on this?"

"If they are determined" to deny Obama an agreement he signed with Moscow, "they will succeed, and they certainly will pay the price," the staffer added.

If Medvedev fails to score a success with this treaty, the prospects for a strategic "reset" between Washington and Moscow could grow dim and Russia's more conservative leaders might be expected to grow in clout, treaty advocates are arguing (see GSN, Nov. 10).

"People [in the U.S. Senate] better take the broader view, and that is: Are we now exhausting all we can as Republicans? Or are we squeezing the rock?" said the senior GOP staff aide. A lingering risk, the aide said, is that "people might start picking up rocks and throwing them at us."

November 15, 2010
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WASHINGTON -- The Obama White House on Friday presented its revised plan for funding increases for the nuclear weapons complex budget to Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and other lawmakers viewed as crucial to ratification of the "New START" arms control agreement, according to government officials (see GSN, Nov. 9).