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Senate, White House May Be Closer to Deal on "New START"

(Dec. 1) -U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), shown yesterday. McCain and other Republican senators this week expressed openness to proceeding with debate this year on ratification of a U.S.-Russian nuclear weapons agreement (Alex Wong/Getty Images). (Dec. 1) -U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), shown yesterday. McCain and other Republican senators this week expressed openness to proceeding with debate this year on ratification of a U.S.-Russian nuclear weapons agreement (Alex Wong/Getty Images).

Key Senate leaders and the White House today appeared closer to striking a deal in which a vote to ratify a new nuclear arms treaty might be held before year's end, in exchange for setting aside legislative measures that many Republicans oppose, Global Security Newswire has learned (see GSN, Nov. 29).

The outlines of a possible agreement appear to be emerging that would allow for floor debate and potential ratification this month of the U.S.-Russian "New START" accord -- signed by Washington and Moscow in April -- but only if Democrats are willing to drop or vote down legislation on immigration and permitting gays to serve openly in the military.

However, there is a lot of "wheeling and dealing" going on today on Capitol Hill that could affect any final package of legislation that allows for New START to proceed, said one senior Republican aide.

"It's the Senate," the staffer told GSN. "It's like freestyle jazz."

One hitch could be that the Senate Armed Services Committee and its powerful chairman, Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), so far have not agreed to a horse trade in which fiscal 2011 defense authorization legislation -- containing a repeal of the "Don't Ask-Don't Tell" policy -- is sacrificed. Just yesterday, the Defense Department unveiled the results of a broad survey showing that the military largely accepts the idea of gays and lesbians serving openly, laying the groundwork for legislation that phases in the new policy.

"You have an authorizing committee that is fighting for its life," the senior GOP staffer said. "I really don't think there's a deal yet."

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) moved today to file cloture on the Dream Act, a piece of immigration legislation that would allow hundreds of thousands of undocumented foreigners a path to legal residency in the United States. It was unclear whether a Senate tally on that matter would serve as merely a symbolic vote and could yet remain part of package deal with Republicans involving New START.

"It's evident from what some Republicans have said publicly that they are trying to get the administration to trade New START for the Dream Act and Don't Ask-Don't Tell," said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "I don't know if the White House is willing to accept such a trade" (Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire).

Republican lawmakers yesterday offered a number of comments indicating that, conditions permitting, they could allow Senate deliberations over New START to commence during the congressional lame-duck session, Reuters reported.

Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Robert Corker (R-Tenn.) suggested the Senate could take up the treaty this month if it were established as top priority, Reuters reported.

"It's possible, in my view, to do some serious things in the lame duck," Graham said. It's not possible to do START, taxes, unemployment insurance, the Dream Act, the firefighters thing and 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'" Graham said in reference to other legislative issues the Senate could consider.

"To me the question is: Does the majority want to take up START, and ... if they do, that means really not taking up all of these other issues they continue to talk about," Corker added after meeting with other Republican lawmakers. "Let's deal with the issue of extending tax policy, let's deal with the continuing resolution (to fund the government) and let's spend the couple of weeks that it might take on the floor with START" (David Alexander, Reuters I, Nov. 30).

Speaking on ABC's "Good Morning America," Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) added: “I believe that we could move forward with the START treaty and satisfy Senator Kyl’s concerns and mine about missile defense and others, and I hope that we can do that.”

Addressing whether the Senate could advance the treaty in 2010, he added: “I would hope so. But Senator Kyl’s concerns are very legitimate, and I think that attempts are being made to address them.”

After earlier expressing concerns about potential Russian intimidation of Washington's partners in Central Europe, Senator George Voinovich (R-Ohio) indicated he could endorse ratification of the pact, the New York Times reported.

“There seems to be a lot of coming together there and a lot more comfort among our friends and allies in Europe,” Voinovich said. “I think I’d be supportive” (Peter Baker, New York Times, Nov. 30).

"We're making quiet, steady progress, and I want to keep it quiet for the moment," the Wall Street Journal quoted Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) as saying (Weisman/Meckler, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1).

“It’s absolutely essential to our national security,” Obama said yesterday at a White House gathering with top lawmakers. “We need to get it done,” the New York Times quoted him as saying (Baker, New York Times).

The pact to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty would require the two nations to cap their deployed strategic nuclear warheads at 1,550. It also would set a ceiling of 700 deployed warhead delivery systems, with another 100 allowed in reserve.

At least 67 senators must approve ratification for the treaty to enter into force. In this Congress, that requires support from no fewer than nine Republican senators. Following GOP gains in last month's midterm elections, the administration next year would need 14 Republican "yes" votes.

Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the lead GOP figure on the matter, recently suggested debate on the treaty should not proceed until the new Congress convenes next month. He and other Republicans have expressed concern that treaty language could constrain U.S. missile defense options, questioned whether planned verification measures are sufficient, and called on the Obama administration to pledge further funds for modernization of the nation's nuclear-weapon complex (Alexander, Reuters I).

Meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned that U.S. failure to ratify the treaty would prompt a Russian arms buildup, RIA Novosti reported today.

"That's not our choice. We don't want that to happen. But this is not a threat on our part," Putin told CNN. "We've been simply saying that this is what all of us expects to happen if we don't agree on a joint effort there."

Although the United States would need "a very dumb nature" not to ratify the treaty, "then we'll have to react somehow," in part by fielding additional nuclear weapons.

"We have been told that you'll do it in order to secure you against the, let's say, Iranian nuclear threat," he said. "But such a threat, as of now, doesn't exist" (RIA Novosti I, Dec. 1).

Putin reaffirmed Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's warning this week that an agreement on missile defense deployments would be necessary to avoid the deployment of new Russian armaments, Reuters reported (see GSN, Nov 30).

Moscow would "put in place new strike forces ... against the new threats which will have been created along our borders," he said. "New missile, nuclear technologies will be put in place" (Reuters II, Dec. 1).

The European Union yesterday said the U.S.-Russian treaty offered a "historic opportunity," the Xinhua News Agency reported.

"In this context, the European Union gives its full support to efforts of the governments of the United States and Russia and looks forward to the swift ratification and implementation of the new START treaty," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said (Xinhua News Agency/Crienglish.com, Nov. 30).

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon offered his own words of support for the document, RIA Novosti reported.

"I strongly recommended the U.S. and Russian governments sign this New START treaty," Ban said. "This is a very important demonstration of their political commitment to see and to realize a world free of nuclear weapons ... I sincerely hope that both countries will ratify this START treaty as soon as possible" (RIA Novosti II, Nov. 30).

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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