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Amendments, Holidays Pose Hurdles for START Treaty in Senate

December 16, 2010 at 6:26 PM EDT
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The Senate formally opened debate Thursday over whether to ratify the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia. Judy Woodruff gets an update on what's at stake and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering from political editor David Chalian.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to help us delve further into the Senate politics behind the treaty debate, we are joined by “NewsHour” political editor David Chalian.

Thank you for being with us tonight.

DAVID CHALIAN: My pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, so what is going on here? Months ago, when think came up in the Senate, all the signs were encouraging.

DAVID CHALIAN: And you know the history of nuclear arms treaties, usually, huge bipartisan vote in the Senate, which, of course, the White House points to all the time.

What happened here is twofold, right? There’s the — a substantive argument that happened and a political sort of tactics that got put in place here. The substantive the argument you heard in that piece that you just did there, Judy, on modernization of nuclear facilities across the country — that was a big concern of Jon Kyl’s — and on questions about missile defense. Did this somehow hamper America’s missile defense?

You heard Secretary Gates say today they believed they have addressed all those questions and all those concerns that they thought were legitimate concerns. So, now that means we’re left with the politics part of this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what are the politics? What is it that the Republicans don’t want to have happen with this treaty? If they — if they — if they’re OK on the substance, what’s going on?

DAVID CHALIAN: What’s going on is, you remember, right after the election, when this lame-duck session started, Mitch McConnell sent a letter signed by all 42 Republicans over to Harry Reid that said, you must do two things before you do anything else: the tax cut legislation and funding the government. When that’s completed, we can go on to some of these other priorities that you and the administration have.

Well, that’s not done yet. And so, right now, because they believe that was the mandate in the election, to cut government spending and waste, they think they have a winning issue, the Republicans do, by saying, you cannot move to anything else, including START, unless you get that funding of the government done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you do now, we see, have some division among the Republicans. There were, what, nine of them who voted with the Democrats this week to at least bring this to the floor for discussion, for debate.

DAVID CHALIAN: Right. And that is what is giving some hope to Democrats on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Talking to folks who are working this bill in the Foreign Relations Committee, they’re pretty confident that they have the votes here, because, as you said, you saw in that vote yesterday they had 66. And Evan Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana, has indicated he’s going to vote for it. So they have got a boost of confidence here.

The problem, though, is, Judy, is that they’re open to amendments. We have several days to go here. The timing of the Christmas holiday coming up against the clock here, the Republicans, as they have said, Jim DeMint said, trying to run out the clock here, because they really want to keep the focus on just cutting the spending.

I will tell you, though, also, despite the confidence, there’s not a Democrat that says, it’s in the bag, done, we have got the 67 votes.

The thing that gives the White House and Capitol Hill Democrats the most sort of confidence right now is, those nine Republicans that voted with them, not one of them is named Jon Kyl. And they thought Jon Kyl was going to be able to lockstep the Republican votes. And, clearly, some Republicans are willing to break away from Kyl on this one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Among them, John McCain…

DAVID CHALIAN: Among them, John McCain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … as we were mentioning.

The polls, David — we saw a new poll this week — 70 percent, by 2-1, Americans are in favor of this nuclear arms treaty. What political benefit, then, do the Republicans get by opposing it?

DAVID CHALIAN: Again, the only political benefit that they see for themselves right now is being able to talk about something else, to talk about spending. That’s the benefit. It’s not so much a benefit to defeat START.

Of course, there’s always the added benefit, which they found lots of success with throughout 2010, of denying President Obama an accomplishment. He has made it crystal-clear that this is his single most important foreign policy initiative in this lame-duck session to get completed before they go away for the holiday.

And — and now that the tax cut legislation is done, they will fund the government, because they’re not looking to shut it down on Saturday. This is now the remaining major priority for President Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, in brief, what does it look like?

DAVID CHALIAN: Well, I think it’s on razor’s edge. And we got late news today that Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon got diagnosed with prostate cancer, is going to have to have surgery on Monday in Baltimore.

And he has already said from his office he’s going to miss votes tomorrow and miss votes some days next week. Because it’s a matter of every vote counts, and the Democrats have no room for error here, Ron Wyden being absent from the Senate may cause a big complication for them to get through the rest of this lame-duck session, with START and the other priorities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And meaning they could be in session up until Christmas, and maybe after, as we heard Harry Reid.

DAVID CHALIAN: And maybe after, exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Chalian, thanks very much.