Should Harry Reid Force a Vote on START?

Weighing the risks of pushing Kyl to vote

When Sen. Jon Kyl said he didn't think the New START treaty could be voted on in the lame duck session because of time constraints and unresolved issues, the exasperated sigh from the White House was almost audible. It was the third time the GOP moved to reschedule the vote on the treaty, which was signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April. First, they said it shouldn't be considered before the August recess. Then, in September, they argued that ratifying before the November elections could politicize the voting process.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Sen. John Kerry and Sen. Richard Lugar held a press conference calling for ratification in the lame duck session. The treaty is "not an issue that can afford to be postponed," Clinton said.

Most say Kyl's vote will determine the actions of most other Senator republicans. But Kyl's clout only stretches so far. Ultimately, it's up to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to bring the treaty to the floor for a vote. But is that in the best interests of New START advocates like Clinton, Kerry and Lugar?
Max Bergmann, a nuclear non-proliferation policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, says there's no downside in Reid pushing for a vote. "The leverage the administration has is in forcing the vote, and in preventing this process from getting delayed even further," Bergmann says. "If Kyl is willing to risk national security and vote 'no' on the START treaty because it's being held in the lame duck session, then he's not going to allow a vote, or he's going to vote 'no' later, so you might as well force his hand here."

Ostensibly, Kyl has a stake in the ratification of the treaty: In exchange for his support, the administration has offered Kyl $4.1 billion for nuclear modernization efforts -- that's in addition to the $80 billion the White House already promised for nuclear stockpile and infrastructure work over the next 10 years.

Kyl hasn't voiced outright opposition to the bill. But if Reid forces his hand, and Kyl votes against the ratification, it will send a clear message. "If [Kyl] is willing to kill his nuclear weapons funding for what he considers a benign treaty, then clearly he is driven by partisan politics," says Bergmann, adding that a "no" vote would be an attempt to deny the president a perceived victory. "Everything Kyl has said about the need for modernizing nuclear weapons, he doesn't care that much about it."

But while a "no" vote could highlight possible disingenuous motives, forcing a vote may be too risky.

Matthew Rojansky, the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the alarmist rhetoric flowing from the White House and from pundits shouldn't be a reason to push ahead with a vote. Rojansky says Kyl may be waiting until the next Congress to make sure the Administration's $4.1 billion promise is sincere. He may also be planning to insert explicit language about nuclear modernization funds into the legislation, or waiting for the promised funds to appear in a spring appropriations bill.

If Reid forces a vote now, he likely won't receive the two-thirds vote necessary for ratification. "I wouldn't take the risk, and I wouldn't give up the possibility of an objectively better scenario in 2011," Rojansky says.