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GOP Support for Arms Control Vote Still Up in the Air

Updated at 1:15 p.m.
The arms reduction, or New START, treaty passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday by a 14-4 vote, but it is still unclear whether the full Senate will vote on the measure this year.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote Thursday on the nuclear arms reduction treaty that President Obama signed with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, in April. The agreement reduces both nations’ strategic nuclear arsenals by roughly one-third, and is seen as key to “resetting” the relationship between Washington and Moscow.

But while a majority of the committee is expected to vote in favor of the treaty, the question is how many Republicans on the panel will support it. Arms control watchers say the greater the aye votes, the better the prospects for treaty ratification when it goes to a full Senate vote. That may not happen until after the November elections.

Of the eight Republicans on the Senate committee – whose offices were contacted by the NewsHour this week – only Sens. Richard Lugar, Ind., and Bob Corker, Tenn., have publicly declared their support for the treaty. The rest are either against it — including Sens. James Inhofe, Okla., and Jim DeMint, S.C. — or have not yet decided or stated their views. The latter group includes Sens. Johnny Isakson, Ga., James Risch, Ind., John Barrasso, Wyo., and Roger Wicker, Miss.

But the most important vote with respect to bringing Republicans on board, according to arms control watchers on the left and right, is Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona. According to Christopher Ford, who served in the George W. Bush administration, Kyl is “the most articulate and informed of the hawks, and the one whose opinion probably carries the most weight among those who do not follow Lugar in automatic support for the new treaty.” Kyl has voiced concerns about missile defense and modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Another Republican arms control watcher, Henry Sokolski, agreed in an e-mail to the NewsHour: “Bottom line: Kyl holds all the keys to figuring out what the future pace of START ratification might be and, perhaps, if START will be ratified at all.”

A spokesman for Kyl’s office told us the senator would reserve judgment on the matter until the committee voted.

A major development this week was Lugar’s offering an alternative to the one introduced by committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass. Lugar’s wording was “an effort to address concerns that came up in hearing process,” according to Andy Fisher, Lugar’s spokesman.

The Lugar substitute spells out in detail the Senate’s interpretation of the treaty and states that it does not limit U.S. plans to build limited national missile defenses. It also declares that the United States is committed to ensuring the reliability and performance of its nuclear forces. Republicans have been concerned that as the nation cuts its nuclear forces, the remaining aging warheads might run a greater risk of malfunctioning.

Republicans have thus sought assurances that the Obama administration is committed to spending billions of dollars more over the next decade for building new facilities, and for maintaining and modernizing the nuclear warheads carried by missiles or bombs.

Kerry’s office released a statement this week praising Lugar’s efforts to garner support for the treaty, saying, “Senator Lugar and I are working very closely together, and I’m certainly prepared to agree to his substitute version of the resolution if it meets our needs as well.”

But Stephen Rademaker, who served in the George W. Bush administration, views Kerry’s endorsement of the Lugar effort as part of endgame negotiations among senators and the administration, and as a sign that an agreement among them is not yet complete.

“You’ll note that there [is] an ‘if’ in the statement,” Rademaker wrote in an e-mail to the NewsHour, referring to the possibility that the Lugar language would not meet Democratic bottom lines. “I think the implication is that what’s on the table from the Republicans right now isn’t acceptable to him; if it were, presumably he’d say, ‘I can agree to the text Dick shared with me yesterday…'”

Kerry appears to be “asking Lugar and the Republicans to come in his direction,” Rademaker said. “So what we’re seeing here is a negotiation, with all the attendant posturing.”

No matter how the vote goes today, it is iincreasingly unlikely the full Senate will vote on the treaty before the body recesses for the November mid-term elections. Also uncertain is whether the Senate will vote on the treaty during a lame-duck session after the elections.

Liberal arms-control watcher Joe Cirincione projects that once the treaty gets to the Senate floor, “it will pass overwhelmingly, with over 80 votes. There may be as few as five to 10 votes against it.” Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, wrote in an e-mail to the NewsHour: “In the end, this treaty is not substantively controversial. A delay in voting is just that – a delay for political reasons.”

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