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Lame-Duck Congress Readies for ‘Slog’ on START Nuclear Treaty

December 20, 2010 at 4:09 PM EDT
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In a flurry of debate and negotiation Monday, the Senate moved toward action on the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. Gwen Ifill discusses the next steps with Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, and Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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GWEN IFILL: The countdown to Christmas was on today in Washington, as the Senate labored to finish work on a challenging wish list — topping the agenda, a nuclear arms treaty with Russia.

The White House was supposed to have been quiet for the holidays by now. Instead, President Obama’s family left for their Hawaiian vacation without him. And he remained behind to try to get the new START treaty passed.

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS: Look, obviously, the president and the vice president continue to communicate with senators in order to ensure that they have the most up-to-date information.

GWEN IFILL: White House spokesman Robert Gibbs predicted the president’s telephone lobbying will be successful. But the congressional clock is ticking.

ROBERT GIBBS: The White House believes that, before Congress leaves town, that the Senate will ratify the New START treaty.

GWEN IFILL: The treaty, signed in April by Mr. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, would reduce the maximum size of deployed nuclear arsenals in each country by roughly a third.

Assuming solid support from Democrats, the administration still needs at least nine Republican votes to get to the 67 needed for ratification. One key prospect, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said Sunday he would vote no.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-S.C.): The idea that you can have a meaningful debate on the START treaty, when you have had one amendment after weeks of special interest politics, and you have unresolved the difference between the Russians’ view of missile defense and ours, makes it a hurdle you can’t overcome in the lame-duck.

GWEN IFILL: The president tried to address some of those concerns in a letter to party leaders on Saturday, promising to move ahead with missile defense.

But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said today the Senate needs more time.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-Ky), minority leader: No senator should be forced to make decisions like this so we can tick off another item on someone’s political checklist before the end of the year.

GWEN IFILL: Democrats have long complained that the New START treaty would have been ratified by now, if not for Republican delays. But they conceded, this week’s vote count will be tough.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D-N.Y.): I think we will get them. It’s going to take a — it’s going to be a real slog, you know, sort of house-by-house combat, if you will. But I think we will be there.

GWEN IFILL: The key test could come tomorrow, when treaty supporters try to cut off debate. If they win, a final vote might come by Thursday. That would give the president another major victory, on the heels of Saturday’s repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell.

SEN. EVAN BAYH (D-Ind.): The yeas are 65, the nays 31.

GWEN IFILL: The Senate’s action opened the way for gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military for the first time. It came after 17 years of enforcement and heated debate.

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D-N.Y.): If you care about national security, if you care about our military readiness, then you will repeal this corrosive policy.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I-Conn.): The existing don’t ask, don’t tell policy is, in my opinion, inconsistent with basic American values.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-Ariz.): I hope that, when we pass this legislation, that we will understand that we are doing great damage.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R-Ga.): Should it be done at some point in time? Maybe so. But in the middle of a military conflict is not the time to do it.

GWEN IFILL: In the end, the president’s position carried the day, fulfilling a 2008 campaign promise. He’s expected to sign the repeal bill on Wednesday.

At the same time, another of his priorities, the so-called DREAM Act, fell short of the number of votes it needed to cut off debate. It would have given children of illegal immigrants a path to legal status if they enroll in college or join the military.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-Ill.): This is the only country they have ever known, and all they’re asking for is a chance to serve this nation. That is what the DREAM Act is all about.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-Ala.): This bill is a law that, at its fundamental core, is a reward for illegal activity.

GWEN IFILL: Still to come on the Senate’s to-do list is a final vote to fund the government through March 4.

And New York lawmakers are still pushing for a $6.2 billion bill to provide health care for 9/11 first-responders over 10 years. If it passed, the bill would go back to the House for final approval. The House will also have to find time for final action on food safety legislation that cleared the Senate over the weekend.

Joining us to assess this crowded and eventful lame-duck session of Congress are Cynthia Tucker, a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Rich Lowry, editor of the “National Review.”

Rich Lowry, you have been following this START debate. Where does it stand tonight, as far as you can tell?

RICH LOWRY, editor, “National Review”: I don’t know, Gwen.

The people who are following it very closest and are closest to it don’t know. So, I don’t know. I think it’s a real jump ball. The cloture vote tomorrow will be very telling. If it gets in the low 60s, it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s not an ultimate vote on ratification at all. If it’s upper 60s, 70, that shows they probably have the votes and it will go to ratification.

GWEN IFILL: Who are the moving parts, Cynthia, about this issue in particular? And then we will move on to the larger issues. Is it politics, is it policy, in your opinion?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, editorial page editor, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution: It’s the politics, Gwen. It’s the politics of petulance. That’s what we’re seeing here.

Many Republicans are annoyed that the president seems to be racking up so many victories in this lame-duck session. The policy issues that were legitimate have largely been dealt with. Republicans have been complaining for months that there was not enough money to modernize our nuclear arsenal. The president has now committed tens of billions, far more than George W. Bush did, to modernize our nuclear arsenal.

Republicans have said they haven’t had enough time to read the treaty. Well, it’s been signed since April. They have had six months to get into the details of the treaty. It has been endorsed by every living secretary of state.

It seems that Republicans keep moving the ball here in an effort not to give the president another political victory. But, let’s remember, national security is also at stake here. Without this treaty, we have no way to verify Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

GWEN IFILL: Rich, is this politics of petulance, or is there some substantive objection to what we see playing out on the floor?

RICH LOWRY: Well, I think Republicans like Jon Kyl have just been convinced it’s a bad deal. It takes us down to 700 launchers. The fact is, that’s missiles, bombers and the like. The Russians are already below 700 launchers, so they’re not going to have to cut at all. We’re the only ones that will have to cut.

And, in exchange for us cutting, we’re making concessions like linking missile defense to offensive weapons, which is the language in the preamble the Republicans are very concerned about and trying to strip out.

Now, if it’s true, as the administration and supporters of the treaty say, that that preamble is really meaningless, it’s basically an inkblot, it shouldn’t be a problem removing it. The administration should support removing it. The Russians should be fine removing it.

But, in fact, the Russians today were saying they will oppose any change in the treaty whatsoever. And on the issue of verification — this is a key thing — the verification regime under New START is much weaker than the old START treaty. It basically relies on what they call technical means, satellites and whatnot. So, you’re going to be able to use those technical means whether you have this treaty or not.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about some of the other things on this incredibly crowded plate.

Don’t ask, don’t tell was a victory for the administration, Cynthia, this weekend, but the DREAM Act not quite reaching the threshold for a vote or to cut off debate. That also — that was a defeat for the administration. On balance, when you look at these things, one up, one down, how is it going?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, it was a defeat to the administration, Gwen, but I look at it as beyond politics. I think it was also a defeat for the country.

It pains me that, in essence, the U.S. Senate turned its back on 800,000 to a million potential model citizens. These are young people who have been here for much of their lives, speak English, have committed no crimes themselves.

They were brought here by their parents. And they would be put on a path to legal status if they served in the military or finished two years of college. We need — the military needs good recruits. President Obama has said our economy depends on having more Americans finish college.

So, these would have been good young folks for us to envelope into American society. And, yes, it’s a blow to the administration. It’s a blow to their Latino supporters. But I think it’s also a blow to the country.

GWEN IFILL: What about don’t ask, don’t tell? Was that just going to happen, or was there a mistake made this weekend, Rich?

RICH LOWRY: Well, as Thomas Jefferson said, public opinion is the lord of the universe.

Our system ultimately runs on persuasion. And over the last 17 years, supporters of repeal had just made major inroads among the public. And that — when that happens, you are going to see Congress move. And that’s what happened.

GWEN IFILL: Rich, are you surprised to see so many happening in a lame-duck session? There’s been so much discussion about whether the president is moving to the middle, whether he’s moving to the right or the left. What is your sense of that?

RICH LOWRY: You know, I think much more consequential than any of the things we have been discussing — no disrespect, Gwen, because they all happened this weekend — but was…

(LAUGHTER)

…the action Thursday night, when you had Nancy Pelosi’s House, in a big bipartisan vote, ratifying, basically, the Bush tax cuts on all income levels for the next two years. A huge majority in the House, and that still got through. That’s extraordinary.

And you also saw the omnibus bill, this big $1.1 trillion spending bill, collapse in the Senate, and a defeat for appropriators of both sides. So, that was really a sign of the crumbling of the old spending order on Capitol Hill.

And now we’re going to have a big debate over how much to retrench. And that tax deal was a sign, I believe, that President Obama realizes he needs to efface as much of his image as a liberal partisan that he’s accrued over the last two years as possible by getting to the center.

So, I would expect to see over the next year similar moves by him to scramble the partisan picture.

GWEN IFILL: Cynthia?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, it’s — there has been much debate about whether the president is triangulating, moving to the center.

The fact of the matter is that there were some things that the president very much wanted that he could not get unless he agreed to extend the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. He wanted to extend unemployment benefits. He got that. He wanted tax cuts for the rest of Americans, for middle-class and working-class Americans. He got that.

He got an expansion of the earned income tax credit. So, what he managed to get out of this compromise is, in effect, a second stimulus, smaller than the original stimulus. But he never would have gotten anything with the name stimulus attached to it through a Republican House next year.

So, there are reasons, I think, for both sides to celebrate, as they have. Whether it’s a move to the center, that’s something that the president — we will be debating for the next two years.

GWEN IFILL: Quick answer from both of you, first you, Cynthia. Do we have to stop calling lame-duck Congresses lame after this?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: We might, Gwen. This one hasn’t been so lame after all.

GWEN IFILL: Rich?

RICH LOWRY: I would hope we would stop having lame-duck Congresses at all. I just think it’s an awful practice to have representatives who have been rejected by the people deciding important questions like this.

GWEN IFILL: Well, there you go. Rich Lowry, Cynthia Tucker, thank you both very much.

RICH LOWRY: Thanks, Gwen.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Thank you.