In response to criticism for threatening to obstruct the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, Senate Republicans insist they are just talking about delaying a vote for a couple of months. They say there is little difference between a vote in December and a vote in February. But this is a myth. Should New START fail to get floor time before the end of the year, its prospects for ratification become very bleak.
It is disingenuous to suggest there is little difference between a vote in December or February, since the treaty ratification process will go back to square one in January with the beginning of an entirely new Congress. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee could technically vote the treaty out of committee again immediately in the new Congress, but with a change in members on both sides of the aisle, a fresh round of hearings will be insisted upon by the new minority members. Already, newly elected Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), among others, has demanded this. These hearings will take time, which means a delay in the committee vote until about April—one full year after the treaty was signed by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev.
If the treaty is voted out of committee, then it will need Senate floor time and the votes of 15 Republicans instead of the nine needed now. To make the ratification math even worse for the treaty, some of these new Republicans are far more conservative than those they are replacing, such as Tea Party favorites Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), who’s replacing Bob Bennett, and Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is taking over from George Lemieux in Florida.
Senate Republican’s stronger position in the next Congress will only increase their ability to play the duplicitous games we’ve seen over the past six months. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) initially tied his potential support for START to funding increases for the nuclear weapons complex—an issue that is not affected or related to the treaty. The Obama administration had already promised to boost funding levels and responded to Kyl’s demands with even more—$85 billion over ten years, about a 20 percent increase over the Bush administration levels.
Yet Sen. Kyl refuses to take yes for an answer when it comes to modernization funding. He continuously moves the goal posts, seeking a guarantee that future Congresses will follow through with the money. Such assurances are not in the Obama administration’s power to give.
Senate Republicans over the past nine months repeatedly sought and received delays during the treaty ratification process, only to then ask for more delays. As one demand after another is met, Sen. Kyl’s strategy becomes clearer by the day—delay and obstruct the treaty until it withers on the vine and dies.
No one now actually knows what Kyl wants anymore. When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was set to vote in August, Kyl led Republicans to insist on delay, accusing the committee of “rushing.” Democrats accommodated and held off on the vote until September. Following the strong bipartisan committee vote, Republicans insisted a floor vote couldn’t happen before the election because, as a senior Republican aide warned, it would “reek of politics”—despite the fact the original START treaty was voted on just before an election. Sen. Kyl himself even told Reuters in August that the lame duck period was the appropriate time to vote on the treaty. Reuters paraphrased Kyl, “The Senate might need a ‘lame duck’ session if it wants to vote on the new START this year, he [Kyl] said.”
Now that we’re in the lame duck, Sen. Kyl and other Republicans say that this session is not an appropriate time to vote on a treaty. Remarkably, some Republicans are now using the previous delays to question the actual urgency of getting the treaty ratified now, apparently oblivious that it was delayed at their insistence.
There is little reason to believe that Senate Republicans won’t come up with a litany of new reasons to delay the treaty next year. After witnessing their recent antics, the excuses are easy to predict. First, Senate Republicans could claim they need to wait for the president’s next budget. New senators could then insist on more hearings and more time to study the treaty. They could further claim that they cannot vote on the treaty until they see that Congress will actually approve the spending increases for the nuclear weapons complex in the fiscal year 2012 budget, which begins in October 2011. All of these delaying tactics would push back the vote for at least another year right into the middle of the Republican presidential primary season.
Republicans can claim today that it is possible to ratify New START in the next Congress, but it is clear that a strengthened Republican caucus will have even less incentive to cooperate. Yes, technically it might not be now or never for the START treaty, but it will rightly be perceived that way in Moscow and other capitals around the world. After more than eight months of Senate review, nearly 1,000 Senate questions, and more than 20 hearings, the time is now or probably never for the Senate to vote.
Max Bergmann is a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Analyst at the Center for American Progress.
More from CAP on New START: