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White House Escalates Showdown with Kyl over New START Agreement
WASHINGTON -- The White House late last week significantly ramped up an effort to challenge a key Republican senator who has sought to delay a floor vote on ratifying a U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control agreement signed last April (see GSN, Nov. 19).
Senior administration officials on Friday hosted separate meetings with policy analysts and news columnists to detail several months' worth of contacts they had with Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) to respond to his questions and concerns related to the New START accord, according to sources and documents.
That followed remarks a day earlier by Gary Samore, the National Security Council coordinator for arms control and nonproliferation, indicating the White House believed it had achieved an understanding with Kyl about funding increases for the nuclear complex, only to see the senator discourage a prompt vote on the arms treaty four days later.
The latest White House outreach appeared aimed at undercutting GOP contentions that by calling for a ratification vote before the end of the year, the administration is rushing senators to come to a judgment on the matter.
Kyl last Tuesday released a written statement saying he thought there would be insufficient time during the current lame-duck session of Congress to vote on the pact, which would limit deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 and cap delivery vehicles at 800 on each side.
White House officials countered by releasing at last week's gatherings a list of more than 30 meetings, phone calls and letters between senior administration officials and Kyl or his staff to discuss New START, dating back to August 2009.
They also circulated more than two dozen pages of written responses to the senator's recent questions, obtained by Global Security Newswire. These focused mainly on augmenting the budget for nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles; retaining skilled personnel in the nuclear complex; and ensuring that construction projects for a new uranium processing plant and a chemical and metallurgical research facility are adequately funded.
While Kyl attended a number of the gatherings alongside other lawmakers, many of the contacts were one-on-one and in some cases involved President Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden or key Cabinet members, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, according to the documents.
Spokesmen for the White House and Kyl did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
The influential senator laid out three major requests for the administration, the senior officials reportedly told progressive and conservative policy analysts on Friday.
First, Kyl sought a substantial increase to the fiscal 2011 budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous arm of the Energy Department that oversees the nuclear complex.
Second, he asked the White House to expedite the budget process for nuclear arms funding in fiscal 2012, which normally would not be finalized until late this year or early next year, according to officials.
Third, Kyl requested that the administration update its so-called "1251 Report," which lays out program plans for modernizing atomic arms and the infrastructure that supports them.
The senior officials said last week they believed the administration had done all that Kyl had asked, to include funding a $4.1 billion plus-up for the nuclear complex over the next five years, bringing the total budget to $85 billion for the upcoming decade.
The officials appeared to imply that the senator no longer was acting in good faith, even if they did not state this overtly, according to sources familiar with the briefings. The White House reportedly told policy analysts that it would continue to engage Kyl but also was reaching out to more than a dozen other GOP senators in a bid to cultivate their support.
"Plan A -- get Kyl on board -- has gone up in smoke," said one analyst sympathetic to the treaty, who asked not to be named in discussing the sensitive issue. "Plan B -- convince other GOP senators one by one -- may have been viable if the administration had started on it two or three months ago, but is going to be tough to implement in two or three weeks."
At a press conference last Wednesday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the administration believed it could secure enough votes, with or without Kyl, to ratify the pact.
However, even some treaty supporters remain skeptical. Having failed at its strategy to solicit Kyl's backing for ratification in 2010, the administration is now left scrambling to identify eight Republicans who would defy their party whip on the matter. As it stands, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) is the only Republican in the chamber who has declared he would back the accord in a floor vote.
To attain a two-thirds vote required for ratification, the administration would need a total of 67 votes, nine of which would now have to come from Republicans. When the new Congress convenes in January, the White House would need to garner 14 Republican in favor of the pact, thanks to the net GOP gain in Senate seats in this month's elections.
Some issues experts said Kyl appears to be leaving the door open to discussion and possibly even his ultimate support for the treaty.
"The one thing no one has heard Jon Kyl say is that he's opposed to New START," Stephen Rademaker, a former Bush administration specialist in nonproliferation at the State Department, said during a Nixon Center round-table discussion last Wednesday with journalists and issue experts. "In fact, I think you could probably count on one hand the number of Senate Republicans who have said they're opposed to New START."
Last week, Kyl's spokesman circulated without comment an Arizona Republic columnist's Nov. 20 piece noting that the senator had not stated opposition to the treaty.
"[Kyl] has expressed a willingness to see whether his concerns can be addressed in a way that would enable him in good conscience to support the treaty," wrote columnist Robert Robb. "Just not on the timetable of a lame-duck session and in a bazaarlike atmosphere in which a retiring secretary of defense flies into Arizona with an offer of billions more for modernization."
The reference apparently was to the administration's Nov. 12 briefing on its budget plans, which White House documents show was presented to Kyl by Defense Department policy deputy James Miller, U.S. Strategic Command chief Gen. Kevin Chilton, and NNSA Principal Deputy Administrator Neile Miller.
Gates made a phone call to Kyl the same day, according to the documents.
The new political reality for the Obama White House is that the recent elections strengthened the Republican hand in the negotiations over increasing support for the nuclear complex as a precondition for ratifying the arms accord, Rademaker said.
"You don't have to be legislative genius to understand that from Jon Kyl's point of view, that means -- to the extent this is bargaining and both sides are trying to gain advantage to get the best outcome in the negotiation -- for Jon Kyl, he can probably get a better outcome next year than this year," Rademaker said. "And, conversely, for the administration, this is also [about] trying to get the best outcome in that negotiation. They're likely to get a better outcome this year than next year."
In fact, the administration might now be running a risk that a bid to bypass or marginalize Kyl could backfire in a party known for its internal discipline, according to some analysts.
"I'm not sure what the White House is thinking," Christopher Ford, a former State Department official in arms control and nonproliferation policy during the Bush administration, told GSN last week. "It's usually not considered good legislative strategy to pick a public personal fight with someone whose cooperation you're desperately trying to elicit."
The strategy could force Kyl to dig in his heels, rather than search for common ground on the matter, several observers noted.
Moreover, "questioning Jon Kyl's patriotism or his intelligence or his motivations" is unwarranted, Rademaker said. Samore strongly denied that he or the White House sought to criticize Kyl.
The enmity could go in both directions, Rademaker said.
"If I wanted to take a cheap shot, I'd say that the administration is negotiating in bad faith, because they've known for months that Jon Kyl had this concern, and they waited until [Nov. 12] -- less than a week ago -- to make their proposal to him," Rademaker said last Thursday. "And [they said], 'Here it is -- take it -- gotta take it now, now, now. You have to take it.'"
Rademaker said that the White House, in fact, appeared to have acted above-board, but simply failed in an earlier effort to round up sufficient Republican support absent the endorsement of Kyl, who is believed capable of delivering enough "yes" votes for ratification if he so chooses.
"I think the administration does have a shot at peeling off 10 to 15 Republican votes if they make the case that they made a good-faith effort to reach out to Kyl, and that failure to ratify the treaty would compromise American leadership," said treaty supporter Jeffrey Lewis of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
"We have one president at a time," he added. "While Republicans can certainly insist on being included in the process, the country as a whole loses if we are seen as being so divided that the United States cannot make international agreements."
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