Obama and GOP reach first post-election standoff over Russian arms treaty

Jon Ward Contributor
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President Obama and Republican lawmakers reached their first full-fledged post-election standoff Wednesday, with neither side backing down from its position on whether an arms reduction treaty with Russia should be voted on in the Senate this year or next.

Friction between Obama and Republicans had been expected to develop, but most did not see it developing so quickly around the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The expectation, instead, was that the biggest fight in the lame duck session of Congress would likely be over whether to extend some or all of the Bush tax cuts before the end of the year.

Senate Republicans did not budge Wednesday from their position that the treaty should be more fully debated and voted on after the new year.

But the administration Thursday will continue a third straight day of ramping up pressure on the GOP to approve the treaty with Russia. Obama will “drop by” a meeting with former defense and national security officials from Republican and Democratic administrations at the White House.

The meeting will include Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary; former Secretaries of State James Baker, Madeline Albright and Henry Kissinger; former Secretaries of Defense William Cohen and William Perry; former National Security Advisor General Brent Scowcroft; Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright; former Democratic Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, and committee ranking member Sen. Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican.

It is a continuation of a full-court press that began Tuesday after Sen. Jon Kyl, the Arizona Republican who is the lead GOP lawmaker on the issue, said he did not want a vote in the current lame duck Congress.

The White House has tried to address concerns expressed by Kyl and other Republicans by adding $4.1 billion over the next five years to the budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is charged with “sustaining America’s aging nuclear complex and stockpile.”

With the increase, the NNSA budget over the next decade will be at $85 billion.

However, Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican considered to be one of the more open to compromise, said Wednesday that this was a first good step but also made clear that he is not in favor of ratifying the treaty during the lame duck session before the end of the year.

“I question whether it is astute or even practical for the administration to rush passage of the START treaty during this lame duck session,” Corker said in a statement provided by a spokeswoman. “There is limited time on the calendar, and the Senate has identified other priorities that must be addressed, leaving little to no time to appropriately consider and debate amendments related to the treaty.”

Other Republicans were largely silent Wednesday. After announcing his desire Tuesday to wait until 2011 to debate the treaty, Kyl said nothing about the issue Wednesday, nor did his staff, standing by his position. White House officials indicated that there were no talks with Kyl ongoing, but that they were calling other GOP senators to see if they could gain support from the 67 senators needed to ratify a treaty without Kyl’s support.

But other Republicans, meanwhile, either pointed to Kyl’s comments Tuesday or did not respond to requests for comment.

Top Obama administration officials, meanwhile, tried to publicly pressure the Republicans, infusing their appeals with a political argument that if the GOP does not work with Obama to get the treaty done now, it will be a failure to heed an anti-Washington mood expressed in the midterm elections.

“Recently some have suggested we should hit the pause button, that it’s too difficult to do this treaty in a lame-duck session. I strongly disagree,” said Clinton at a press conference Wednesday morning. “This is exactly what the American people expect us to do: to come together and do what is necessary to protect our country.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs made the political argument more explicitly.

“This is going to be a test of the degree to which both sides can work together on things that are of common interest to the American people,” Gibbs said. “That was the message of this election, was, Washington can’t just be what Washington has always been. We have to have people who are capable of sitting down in a room and moving issues forward.”

Clinton also stressed the need to reinstate American inspectors on the ground in Russia.

“I’m not sure that everybody really understands that when the prior treaty expired, we lost the ability to have inspectors on the ground. We need to get our inspectors back into Russia after a gap of nearly a year.”

Gibbs added that Republicans were putting the country’s national security at risk, and tried to create the aura of inevitability.

“The bottom line is … failure to pass this endangers our national security,” Gibbs said. “I don’t think it’s going to get pushed into the next year. I think we’re going to get this done because it’s crucial to our security.”

Biden himself said Tuesday that “failure to pass the New Start treaty this year would endanger our national security.”

The treaty would reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads for each country from 2,200 to 1,550 by 2012, and allow each country to reinsert inspectors at each other’s weapon sites.

Administration officials said the treaty is key to ensuring positive relations with Russia, which allows roughly 50 percent of U.S. air transports into Afghanistan to cross through their air space, and which is also crucial to the U.S. attempts to pressure Iran into forsaking its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Toby Gati, who was special assistant to the President for Russia, Ukraine and the Eurasian States in the Clinton White House, said that “without a treaty, the Russians are sure to do something that we regard as ‘cheating’ — i.e., not living up to the terms of a treaty we won’t ratify.”

“Or say something we don’t like about missile defense or sell arms to Iran, which will ‘prove’ they are untrustworthy and our enemy,” Gati told The Daily Caller. “Then that will become the excuse not to ratify.”

Administration officials also surmised that Kyl and other Republicans were politicizing the issue, allowing part of their calculus to be driven by an unwillingness to give Obama a win of some significance at a time when he is reeling after a devastating midterm election and a troubled trip abroad in southeast Asia last week.

But Republicans said that the administration was trying to rush the issue and had only recently begun serious talks with Kyl.

In addition, relations between the administration and key Republicans — Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — are not positive. McCain has been angered by the administration’s support for attaching amendments to the Defense Authorization bill that are not defense-related, and Graham is exasperated after his attempts to work with the White House on climate change legislation were torpedoed by the sudden introduction of immigration in front of that issue earlier this year.

But the president has not held any meetings on the issue since September, and that was with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. He made calls to Lugar, Corker and a few others on Sept. 16, but his last meeting with a Republican on the matter was in May with Kyl.

Biden and Clinton called Kyl together on Nov. 10, but Clinton and Gates are the administration officials to have the most recent meeting with a GOP lawmaker, sitting down with Kyl on Sept. 10.

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