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Shift in Support for Nuke Treaty Marks Policy Win for Obama

December 21, 2010 at 3:45 PM EST
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President Obama moved a step closer to a major foreign policy victory Tuesday as the Senate cleared the way for ratifying the START nuclear treaty with Russia. Gwen Ifill gets the details from Naftali Bendavid of The Wall Street Journal.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: The president moved a big step closer to a major foreign policy victory today. A 67-28 procedural vote in the Senate cleared the way to ratify a treaty with Russia to cut nuclear arsenals. The vote to cut off debate on the strategic arms reduction treaty came this afternoon after a week of arguments pro and con.

WOMAN: The yeas are 67. The nays are 28. Three-fifths of the senators duly chosen and sworn having voted in the affirmative, the motion is agreed to.

GWEN IFILL: The victory set the stage for a virtually certain ratification vote tomorrow.

Hoping to mitigate Republican doubts over whether the deal was tough enough, the president promised to strengthen missile defense. In the end, 11 Republicans decided to support the treaty.

Lamar Alexander was the highest ranking member of the GOP leadership to join in.

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R-Tenn.): I will vote to ratify the New START treaty between the United States and Russia, because it leaves our country with enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker to kingdom come, and because the president has committed to an $85 billion 10-year plan to make sure that those weapons work.

MAN: The senator from Tennessee is recognized.

GWEN IFILL: Another key persuaded senator was Alexander’s seat mate, Bob Corker of Tennessee.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R-Tenn.): The question becomes to me and for all of us, all of us who care so deeply about our country’s national security, is, will we say “yes” to yes?

I firmly believe that signing this treaty, that ratifying this treaty and that all the things that we have done over the course of time as a result of this treaty is in our country’s national interests. And I’m here today to state my full support for this treaty. I look forward to its ratification, and I hope many others will join me in that process.

GWEN IFILL: New START would limit the U.S. and Russia to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads apiece, down from the current ceiling of 2,200. It would also reinstate inspections and verification that ended a year ago, when a 1991 treaty expired.

President Obama signed the new accord with Russian President Medvedev last April. Since then, he’s agreed on billions in new funding to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Immediately after today’s vote, leading senators applauded the outcome.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-Mass.),chairman, Foreign Relations Committee: I will comment that today we had a number of senators who were not here who will vote for this treaty, Senator Gregg, Senator Bayh, Senator Wyden. So, today, in many ways, you can look at as almost 70 votes.

And I would say to you that, in today’s Washington, in today’s Senate, 70 votes is yesterday’s 95.

(LAUGHTER)

SEN. JOHN KERRY: I feel pretty good about where we have gotten to.

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR (R-Ind.): In our national security interests, we need the New START treaty now. And, for well over a year, we have had no boots on the ground in Russia. I take that very seriously. And I’m not the only one.

GWEN IFILL: Some treaty opponents, like Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, acknowledged early in the day that the tide had turned. He said, “We know when we have been beaten.”

But other objecting Republicans stood their ground.

SEN. JON KYL (R-Ariz.), minority whip: The administration did not negotiate a good treaty. They went into negotiations, it seems to me, with the attitude with the Russians just like the guy that goes into the car dealership and says, I’m not leaving here until I buy a car. And I think that’s the approach that was taken. And the result is pretty clear.

GWEN IFILL: Some also complained about Russian insistence that wording in the treaty not be changed.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-S.C.): I think I understand why the Russians don’t want to reopen the treaty. They have told us, take it or leave it. And my response to our Russian friends is, I choose to leave it at this time.

GWEN IFILL: But Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was among those adding to the late pressure with a letter to lawmakers urging passage.

It read in part: “This treaty enhances our ability to protect and defend the citizens of the United States. I am confident in its success, as I am in its safeguards.”

The president, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Clinton also worked the phones throughout the day. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the effort was designed to change wavering minds.

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS: I think they have had an opportunity to focus on those that are supporting the treaty and listen to — listen to Chairman Mullen, Secretary Gates, Jim Baker, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, and others make I think a very compelling case, along with the president and the vice president, for why this enhances our security, why it does nothing to impact or inhibit our ability to defend ourselves in any way.

GWEN IFILL: Negotiations will continue on the final wording of the treaty up until tomorrow’s vote.

For more on how the ground shifted during the last 24 hours, we turn to Naftali Bendavid, who has been covering the debate for The Wall Street Journal.

Naftali, so negotiations apparently still continue tonight over wording, over proposed amendments. What exactly are they still debating?

NAFTALI BENDAVID, The Wall Street Journal: Well, there are a few remaining amendments; it’s true. Senator McCain has one.

They want to make sure that, not within the treaty itself, but in what’s called the resolution of ratification, that there’s a very clear, strong statement of American intent to pursue missile defense, whatever else the treaty might say.

But the fact is, this is pretty much at this point a done deal. I don’t think anyone doubts that, tomorrow, when they have the vote on final ratification, that this thing is going to pass, probably with a healthy margin.

GWEN IFILL: So, the healthy margin includes perhaps someone like John McCain? They’re trying to push the numbers beyond the 70 that John Kerry was just talking about?

NAFTALI BENDAVID: You know, I’m sure they would like to have the strongest margin that they possibly could. It would send a certain signal to the allies that President Obama is in control of our foreign policy. And it would send a signal, too, about the two parties coming together when it comes to matters of national security and foreign policy.

The truth is, though, I’m sure that they would just take the minimum that they need. I think they would be just as happy with that. If you think about it, it was just a couple days ago that the treaty itself seemed in real jeopardy. And so the fact that right now ratification seems pretty much certain, that’s a huge step.

GWEN IFILL: So, what happened? Yesterday, we were still talking tossup. And, today, it — we’re talking done deal. What changed overnight?

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Yes. Well, there’s a few things.

For one thing, the White House really did mount a full-court press. Republicans raised a couple of main concerns. They wanted to make sure that our missile defense plans forged ahead. And they wanted to make sure that our nuclear arsenal would be modernized.

And President Obama wrote letters. He made phone calls. Joe Biden made phone calls. I mean, the president did everything but sign a blood oath practically promising that he was going to forge ahead with both missile defense and nuclear modernization. So, that was a key factor.

But, also, a lot of Republicans, I think they just wanted to feel like there had been a serious debate and their concerns had been heard. So, as the debate proceeded and unfolded, it was harder to make the case that it had been truncated.

And the Senate is a strange place. A lot of times, personal dynamics are very important. So, I think part of what happened is just that, after a few more Republicans lined up behind the treaty, a certain momentum developed. And, at some point, the thing attained an aura of inevitability. And I think that’s where we are at right now.

GWEN IFILL: And yet, the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, and we just saw Jon Kyl, remain pretty staunch in their opposition to it. Did they lose step in their ability to hold their caucus together?

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Well, it’s interesting. The Republicans have remained unified virtually on everything over the past couple years, usually in opposition to President Obama’s proposals.

And the fact that you have the number-one and number-two ranking Senate Republicans strongly opposed to this treaty and, nonetheless, we’re on track to have at least a dozen defections is very unusual. I think this was sort of an unusual matter. It did have to do with national defense and foreign policy.

I think the president and the Democrats, particularly John Kerry, worked very carefully and strongly, for months really, with key Republicans. So I wouldn’t necessarily assume that Senator McConnell has lost his ability to hold his caucus together, but it is very striking and very unusual, the way the Republicans split on this, while, this time, it was the Democrats who remained unified.

GWEN IFILL: And it is kind of striking that, in a couple of weeks, when we saw a tax cut bill go through that the Republicans didn’t stay lockstep on, don’t ask, don’t tell, and now this, one wonders whether this is the new face of bipartisanship or whether I would be getting carried away to say that.

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Well, the White House is certainly pushing the idea that we do have a new era of bipartisanship, that the president is reaching out more, and that Republicans, now that their presence in the Capitol is growing, realize that they have to take some responsibility for governing.

Personally, I would take a wait-and-see attitude. I’m not convinced that, from now on, we’re in this new golden era. But it is kind of remarkable that the president — the president’s party really took a beating in the last election, just a few weeks ago, and, since then, he’s kind of rolled up one success after another.

There was the tax cut bill that you mentioned. There was the food safety bill. There was the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell. Now it looks like we’re going to have this treaty ratified tomorrow. So, really, it’s a very unusual political moment, where somehow the president was able to take a real defeat at the polls and turn it into political success.

And, by the way, that’s something that wasn’t lost on the Republicans. It started creeping into their statements, that they were very aware of the fact that approving this treaty was going to give the president a political victory.

GWEN IFILL: Do they also think that approving this treaty was more about U.S. credibility abroad than about this president? Was that persuasive as well?

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Well, I think that, certainly in their comments, in their statements, they were not talking about how it was going to affect the president. They were talking about national security.

They — a lot of them, you know, said that, in fact, they didn’t want to let Russia push them around, you know, that Russia had made some take-it-or-leave-it kinds of statements that they didn’t want to respond to simply by adopting the treaty.

I think it was more of an unspoken argument that this could affect U.S. credibility abroad. I think that there’s no question that it does so and it strengthened President Obama’s hands when he talks to foreign leaders. But that was a topic that was left more or less undiscussed during the debate itself.

GWEN IFILL: This treaty was signed in April. It came out of committee in September. And each party blames the other for getting to this last-minute crash. Any way to know who is right?

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Well, you know, I’m personally not going to be referee and sort of decide who is right. But there’s no question…

GWEN IFILL: Very wise.

(LAUGHTER)

NAFTALI BENDAVID: But there’s no question that the Republicans are complaining, not just about the treaty, but they kept on saying they’re being jammed; you know, Christmas is just a few days away, and the Democrats are pushing one thing after another through the Congress.

And John Kerry kept on saying, look, this treaty has been around for months and months and months. We have been working on it for a really long time. And any delays — you know, he says he granted a few delays in response to Republican requests. So, he pushed back pretty hard on any complaint that this was being jammed through.

GWEN IFILL: Is it fair to say, and did the White House or any of the Democrats express this concern, that it would have been much more difficult to get this treaty ratified in the incoming Congress?

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Oh, with no question. I mean, for one thing, they have spent really quite a long time talking to Republican senators, you know, about what is in the treaty, trying to address their concerns, changing the wording of the resolution of ratification and so forth, providing more money for modernization.

What they didn’t want to do is have to start all over again with a new crop. Another thing is that it’s not lost to them at all that the new crop of senators is going to be more Republican and more conservative, so that, if anything, this fight would have been a lot tougher in the new Senate.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Naftali Bendavid, as the negotiations continue through the night, we will see what the final vote is like tomorrow.

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Thanks very much.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you.