The second tier of possible Republican supporters comprises Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Sens. Bob Bennett (Utah), Judd Gregg (N.H.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and George Voinovich (Ohio). Of that group, Bennett, who is retiring, appears to be the most likely to vote for ratification at this point, despite his close relationship with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is opposed.
Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his ally on national security matters, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), appear to be leaning toward opposing ratification despite heavy courting by the White House. McCain offered an amendment to START last week, but it was defeated. Graham said Monday that he continues to have substantive disagreements with START, and he is upset that Democrats have pushed for ratification during the lame-duck session.
Republican Senate aides monitoring the GOP whip count on START say Isakson is inclined to support ratification but could be influenced by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who appears to be headed toward voting “no.” Voinovich, who is retiring, previously voiced concerns about the treaty but has been the subject of intense lobbying by the administration.
Gregg has already announced his support for START on its merits, but he has made clear he might oppose ratification as a courtesy to Republicans who contend there has been insufficient opportunity to debate and amend the treaty. Alexander also has signaled his support but could vote “no” out of solidarity with GOP leadership. He is close with McConnell and Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), who is leading the Republican opposition to START.
Kyl told reporters following the closed session that he would vote against ratification if the vote is held this week. Like several of his GOP colleagues, Kyl continues to express concerns that START could hamper U.S. missile defense capabilities, and he complains that the Obama administration has not taken adequate steps to fund a modernization of the nation’s existing nuclear stockpiles.
Additionally, the Minority Whip has repeatedly argued that START has not received sufficient debate, given that the treaty has been considered simultaneously with other legislation since it hit the floor Thursday. Meanwhile, supporting START carries political implications for Republicans, as many conservative activist groups and commentators are strongly urging the Senate minority to push consideration of the treaty to next year, when the GOP’s ranks will grow from 42 to 47 Members.
“It’s further complicated by more things to do and even less time to do it here before Christmas,” Kyl said, referring to unfinished business such as a continuing resolution to fund the government and a bill to fund the health care costs of Sept. 11 first responders.
Obama signed START with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev this year and has made ratification of the document by year’s end his No. 1 foreign policy priority. As part of the administration’s lobbying effort, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent Kerry a letter Monday urging that the treaty be immediately ratified.