Administration hunts for GOP votes needed to approve arms pact

By Walter Pincus and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 7:33 PM

While trying to satisfy a lawmaker's concerns, the Obama administration is working around Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) in an attempt to gather the nine Republican votes needed to pass the ratification resolution for the strategic arms treaty with Russia this year.

Kyl, who has acted as the Republican negotiator on the issue, surprised the administration recently by saying the lame-duck session did not allow enough time to debate the treaty.

Then last week he circulated a memo asking for guarantees that future presidents and congresses will allocate funds for upgrades of nuclear weapons facilities, something administration officials say cannot be done.

President Obama and his top aides have said they think Kyl is sincere in his concerns, but they also say they have been talking independently with other Republicans about the treaty.

Some of the Republican senators who seem most likely to vote for the New START pact say that Obama must do more to build public support if the document is to be ratified before a new Congress is sworn in.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has reserved judgment on how she will vote until the resolution comes to the floor, said it could make a difference if Obama could get George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, both former presidents, to appear with him in support of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START.

Neither Bush has taken a public position on the pact, which would continue trends they established with the original START agreement signed in 1991 by the elder Bush and the Moscow Treaty approved by the younger Bush in 2002.

The New START treaty continues most verification procedures established in the 1991 agreement that ended last December while adding new ones; it also lowers slightly to 1,550 the deployed warheads allowed under the 2002 pact, which were 1,700 to 2,200.

"It would be wonderful if President [George H.W.] Bush would come out for the treaty. That would be so powerful and definitely help," Collins said in a telephone interview last week.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the leading GOP member supporting the treaty, has suggested that the administration employ the same tactics President Bill Clinton employed in getting Senate approval for ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997. At that time, former president George H.W. Bush, whose administration had signed the convention, publicly urged senators to vote for it at a news conference with Madeleine Albright, Clinton's secretary of state.

"The Clinton administration set up a war room, in a sense, in the Capitol, where we had a team of people who spent all their time slapping down all the arguments against the treaty, coming up with floor statements, organizing the proponents against the opponents," said Mark Helmke, a senior adviser to Lugar. "We've been telling the administration all along you have to do all this."

The White House is planning events that it is not prepared to announce, a senior administration official said. He added, "We have always targeted a group of [Republican] senators other than Kyl and remain optimistic they will support the treaty when it comes to a vote."

At least eight Republicans, beyond Lugar and Collins, have publicly said they have concerns about issues that have been raised but have not yet said they oppose approval of the treaty. For example, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said last week in a statement, "It is . . . my duty as a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee to carefully review such concerns until a vote is scheduled."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said recently that she has not decided to vote against it. "I have been a little bit preoccupied in these last two months," she said. "So now I'll be able to focus full-time on my responsibilities in the Senate. . . . And part of that will be figuring out exactly where we are with the New START treaty."

Some of those undecided senators have been called by attendees at the Nov. 18 White House bipartisan meeting on START , which included such former officials in Republican administrations as Brent Scowcroft, Henry Kissinger and James Baker III.

The treaty resolution of ratification is a privileged piece of legislation that does not need 60 votes to reach the Senate floor for debate and a vote. It also is not subject to amendments on the floor. But it does need 67 votes for approval, which means at least nine Republicans are required for passage.

Private sessions are underway for last-minute changes to the resolution, a negotiation with Republicans being directed by Vice President Biden, according to administration and congressional sources.

Kyl and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) co-authored a memo circulated last week calling for a commitment in Obama's 2012 budget to update the U.S. nuclear weapons complex through 2020 or later. It also says commitments from congressional authorizers and appropriators "must be obtained" for the five-year budget figures proposed by the administration in its most recent plan for the complex. But administration officials say Obama cannot bind future presidents and congresses to the funding.

A more complex issue raised by Kyl is based on what administration officials say is a misunderstanding of what is currently being done. Kyl wrote that the administration has already begun a review that will change future plans for protecting a reduced number of nuclear weapons. No such review is taking place, the senior administration official said.

Kyl worries that the administration has not allowed for funding increases that would enable the United States to maintain the roughly 5,000 warheads currently deployed and in reserve. (Although the New START treaty takes warheads off deployed status, it doesn't necessarily eliminate them, with many going to storage).

Kyl says Washington shouldn't cut further unless it gets "corresponding reductions in other nations' nuclear weapons stockpiles," such as Russia's thousands of battlefield nuclear weapons, which are not covered by the treaty.

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