The START of another Senate battle?



It's tempting today to focus on the two raciest stories of the news cycle - the FBI's bust of a knuckle-dragging, anti-government militia that was plotting to kill Michigan cops in the name of Jesus (thereby proving, yet again, that the Department of Homeland Security was correct last year when it warned of a growing threat from right-wing domestic terrorists); and the free-spending Republican National Committee's decision to reimburse a party strategist who spent $1,946.25 while hosting some high-rolling GOP donors at a West Hollywood topless S&M bondage nightclub (certainly a creative expenditure for the party of family values) - but I'll dwell instead on a duller issue of far more cosmic import.

That would be the arms control pact, negotiated by President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, and scheduled for their signatures on April 8, which stipulates a 30 to 40 percent cut in the strategic nuclear warheads deployed by both nations.

This new Stratetic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) essentially replaces the old START that expired in December; most importantly, the new pact basically retains the framework of the original - which was developed by Ronald Reagan and signed by George H. W. Bush in 1991. You may have missed this good news, which was announced last Thursday. And the Obama administration announced yesterday that it plans to send the treaty to the Senate by the end of April, in the hopes of winning the 67 votes for Senate ratification by year's end.

A big reduction in the number of Russian nukes aimed at America would clearly stand as Obama's most measurable foreign policy achievement, and the new pact has already earned a key bipartisan endorsement from Senator Dick Lugar, the GOP's most respected nuclear nonproliferation expert.

Nevertheless, I did spot this paragraph in a news story about the treaty:

"But it was unclear whether Senate Republicans would provide enough votes to reach the two-thirds majority needed to ratify the treaty..."

Good grief, here we go again.

This story definitely bears watching. Each of the past three nuclear arms control treaties have been ratified with strongly bipartisan support - 90 senators or more. Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in his statement last Friday that the panel should "work quickly" to approve the new treaty and send it to the Senate floor. And the new START has already drawn strong endorsements from a range of prominent Republican veterans, including Reagan Secretary of State George Schultz, Colin Powell, and Henry Kissinger.

But the key question is whether a sufficient number of Senate Republicans - seven of them, besides Lugar - will have the requisite gravitas to park their partisan instincts and vote in the national interest. The current Republican team makes Henry Kissinger look like Bill Ayers.

Already, we have some preliminary rumblings from Senate Republican leaders who think the treaty might be too candyass for their tastes. Mitch McConnell and his minority whip, John Kyl, have already warned Obama in a letter that it's "highly unlikely" the Senate would vote to ratify a treaty that (in their view) makes it tougher for Uncle Sam to build and deploy a missile defense system.

The flaw in their thinking, however, is obvious: the treaty language itself says nothing about missile defense systems - in other words, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the other day, "Missile defense is not constrained by this treaty." Nor was it constrained by the previous treaty...which prompts me to wonder why a treaty framework that was good enough for Reagan and the senior Bush may not be deemed good enough for many of their GOP successors.

Meanwhile, there's nothing in the treaty language that prevents the U.S. from spending lots of money to modernize its existing nuclear arsenal; Gates himself pointed out last week that Obama's budget has already set aside $5 billion for that purpose. But there are reports that McConnell and Kyl consider that amount to be wimpy, and plan to float a number far higher than what Obama has OK'd. (Message: We strong, he weak.)

In other words, there are all kinds of ways the Republicans could mess with this traditionally bipartisan issue if they choose to do so - even at the risk of weakening our national security (as two arms-control experts argued the other day, "Washington will know more about Russian nuclear forces with the treaty than without it"). After all, it's clear by now that their top priority is to thwart Obama at every turn, even potentially on an issue where he merely seeks to build on what Reagan and Bush began.

And delay alone could lower the odds of a two-third majority for ratification; given the fact that Republicans are likely to pick up some Senate seats in the November elections, pushing ratification into 2011 might well give the GOP some additional No votes. If that's really how they want to play this one.

But maybe they won't. Because if the new START really posed any kind of threat to our security, however fantastical, wouldn't we have already heard from Dick Cheney?