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Extending Session Might Allow for START Vote

Senate ratification of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty remains possible, if unlikely, with lame-duck session scheduling constraints dictating START’s fate as much as lingering Republican opposition.

The Senate gaveled in Monday for what’s supposed to be its last week of session before adjourning until 2011. Even Republicans prepared to support START on its merits say that leaves insufficient floor time to consider the treaty, given the need to first clear more pressing legislation, including the tax extensions and funding to keep the government operational into 2011.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the lead GOP negotiator on START, signaled that ratification would fail if Democrats attempt to deal with the treaty this week. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry declined to render a verdict on START’s prospects in what remains of the lame duck, but he conceded ratification is not a lock and that other legislation takes precedence.

“Everything’s in flux,” the Massachusetts Democrat said.

The Senate is presumed to approve a tax-extension bill on Tuesday, then it is expected to move to politically volatile legislation to keep the government operational into 2011. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also has expressed his desire to return to the DREAM Act and repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy, both of which failed to advance in recent votes.

Senate rules would allow START to be considered concurrently with any of these bills. But it is unclear if this would be acceptable to Republicans. Additionally, negotiations between the GOP, Kerry and the White House on the Republicans’ substantive opposition to the treaty have yet to reach a conclusion acceptable to Kyl and other key Republican Senators.

Kyl suggested Monday that his position on START hasn’t changed. He is concerned that the treaty would weaken U.S. missile defense capabilities, as well as a commitment from the administration to fund the modernization of existing nuclear weapons stockpiles. Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is closely aligned with Kyl, has suggested he might be close to supporting the treaty, but he said Monday he remains opposed.

“I think it’s mathematically possible for it to come up and be voted on [during the lame duck]” Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) added. “But time is running out very rapidly.”

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 top foreign policy priority. Since that time, Kyl has been negotiating with the administration to adjust the document, with Republicans warning throughout the lame duck that there is no appetite on their side for an expedited debate.

Additionally, conservative interest groups and commentators have urged GOP Senators to delay consideration of START until next year, when the Republican Conference will grow from 42 to 47 Members. Ratification requires 67 votes, and waiting until next year would give the GOP more negotiating leverage. Half of the current Conference and Senate GOP Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) support pushing START to 2011.

Still, the Obama administration appears optimistic, believing enough Republicans are on board now to allow for ratification this month. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Monday this is what the president expects to happen. Gibbs also said Obama is willing to stay in Washington, D.C., and delay his holiday vacation as long as necessary to ensure that START is ratified this year.

“Our belief is, as you’ve seen a number of Republican senators come out, that — that this is ... a treaty that will ... that has the votes to pass the Senate and I believe will pass the Senate before Congress goes home for — for the holidays,” Gibbs said.

Reid previously set Dec. 17 as the Senate’s adjournment date, but that may be slipping.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) acknowledged that staying in Washington, D.C., next week is one way START might avoid becoming a victim of the crowded lame-duck legislative calendar. But he declined to comment on whether doing so would be acceptable to those in the minority who have pushed back against the idea of a rushed treaty debate.
 
“It’s a good question,” Alexander said.

Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.

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