Senate Republicans deliberately excluded any reference to ratification of a New START treaty in a letter in which all 42 members of the GOP conference pledged to filibuster "any legislative item" until expiring Bush-era income tax cuts are extended, GOP senators and aides said.
As a treaty, New START is not a legislative item and does not need a cloture vote, though it needs 67 votes for ratification.
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In omitting START from their letter, Senate Republicans left the door wide open for a grand bargain, explicit or not, in which Democrats agree to a temporary extension of tax cuts in exchange for action on START and perhaps other items, such as extension of unemployment benefits.
"START was left out," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
Corker, who is working with Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., in talks with the White House on ratifying START, said the letter purposefully excluded reference to START to avoid preventing action on the treaty even before tax cuts are considered.
Corker was among the Republicans who voted in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to send the treaty to the floor.
GOP aides said Republican leaders agreed in discussion about the letter to avoid reference to START.
"START is not a legislative item," said a spokesman for Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Richard Lugar, R-Ind. "It is on the executive calendar."
The treaty can "come up anytime Harry Reid brings it up," Kyl said today.
But Kyl later said a quick deal on tax cuts is needed for action on START. "If the taxes all can't be resolved and voted on and completed and spending for the government for the next 10 months completed by, like, next Monday, I don't know how there's enough time to complete START," Kyl told reporters.
Last month, Kyl balked at taking up the treaty during the lame duck, citing the need to resolve the tax-cut issue -- a move that blindsided the White House, which had counted on his support after fattening a funding package for modernizing the nation's nuclear arsenal at Kyl's behest.
Republicans aides noted today that Democrats already appear likely to compromise by extending the income-tax cuts. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs this morning signaled willingness to compromise with a short-term extension.