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Democrats May See the End for START

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl wants START with Russia to be considered by the 112th Congress, rather than this one, when there’s time for a fuller debate.

Senate Republicans remain disinclined to support ratification of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia during the lame-duck session, and now Democrats are beginning to have doubts, too.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the Republican point man on START, signaled that his crucial backing will not be forthcoming in what’s left of the lame duck, given the time left to complete work on a tax bill and government funding.

“I just don’t think there’s time,” Kyl said Wednesday afternoon following lunch with the Republican Steering Committee. “I think pretty soon we’re going to have to recognize the reality of the situation and agree for a time for the treaty to be taken up next year.”

Senate Democrats have repeatedly dismissed Republican arguments and have accused the GOP of playing politics with national security. Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) continues to insist that enough time remains in the lame duck to debate and clear START, and President George H.W. Bush urged Senate action on the treaty Wednesday.

But Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry acknowledged that time is growing short in the post-election session to consider the treaty. The Massachusetts Democrat spent several minutes around noon huddling with Kyl and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on the Senate floor discussing the Senate schedule as it relates to START, and then he retreated with Kyl to the Minority Whip’s office to discuss the matter further.

Though he struck a more hopeful tone than Kyl, Kerry conceded that the Senate’s legislative schedule is quickly filling up as time is set aside for debate on a deal to extend the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.

“It’s a question of the overall Senate schedule,” Kerry said. “We’re trying to make sure there’s adequate time for each of the things that need to be done, and Senators don’t want to feel like they’re being cheated of that adequacy of time. They don’t want to be jammed, and we understand that.”

President Barack Obama signed START with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev earlier this year and has made ratification of the treaty by year’s end his No. 1 foreign policy priority. Most, if not all, of the Senate’s 58 Democrats and Independents are prepared to back START.

But ratification requires 67 votes, and even the majority of Republicans who have signaled their intent to support the treaty are making clear they will withhold their backing out of deference to skeptical colleagues if Democrats attempt to rush START through the Senate.

Republicans blame Reid for the lack of time available to consider START, contending that his insistence on prioritizing other legislation cost valuable time that could have been used to debate the treaty. With the Senate scheduled to adjourn for the year on Dec. 17, Republicans said adequate time to allow for START had about run out as of Wednesday.

“The longer they play these games, the less likely it is that we’ll do START,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who otherwise expects his substantive objections to the treaty to be resolved in negotiations with the White House. “I’m not going to vote for a treaty that doesn’t have enough time to be debated. You can get all the substance right, but process does matter.”

“I’m optimistic that we could [reach an agreement] overall and I’d like to support” START, added Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.). “But, clearly, we’re running out of time.”

Since returning to work after breaking for the midterm campaigns, Reid and the Democrats have prioritized a handful of bills ahead of START — in addition to moving on an extension of current tax rates and funding to keep the government’s lights on. Republicans disapproved and have blamed their refusal to back START partly on this factor.

But Republican resistance to approving the treaty during the lame duck runs deeper than an abbreviated period and a crowded legislative calendar. Politically, the idea of punting START to next year, when a new Congress with a strengthened GOP minority of 47 Members will take office, has gained traction with Republican activists and conservative commentators beyond the Beltway.

The substance of the pact, particularly its effect on U.S. missile defense capabilities as well as how the treaty would affect related policy issues such as nuclear weapons modernization, also remains problematic for some Republicans — namely Kyl, whose sign-off many in the Conference are looking to as they weigh their own support.

Kyl has chosen to keep his final position on START under wraps, most likely until the treaty receives a hearing on the Senate floor. But the Arizona Republican intimated that the differences between himself and the White House are unlikely to be resolved this month but are likely to fare better when talks with the Obama administration resume next year.

“I think that the administration has, in its mind, done all it’s going to do. So I don’t think there’s any more talking with them about the resolution of ratification or the modernization issue,” Kyl said. “Whatever that is, it is, and I don’t think it’s going to get any better in the next few days.”

Jessica Brady contributed to this report.

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