Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Why lame-duck Congress will approve Obama's arms treaty

By DeWayne Wickham

Despite the public claims that it won’t happen, there’s a very good chance the Senate will approve the nuclear arms treaty during its lame-duck session.

Democrats want it done because President Obama believes America’s national security hinges on getting the agreement he struck with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ratified. Enough Republicans ultimately will vote for it because the quid pro quo Sen. Jon Kyl, RAriz., is squeezing out of the White House is a financial deal he can’t get once the newly elected Tea Party Republicans take office in January.

Sixty-seven votes are needed in the Senate to ratify the treaty. Democrats currently control 59 and will need the support of eight Republicans to approve the treaty during the lame-duck session. But in the next Congress, the math becomes more difficult when the Democratic majority in the Senate shrinks to 53.

As the GOP whip, Kyl is responsible for mustering Republicans to vote for or against actions that come before the Senate. For much of Obama’s time in the White House, GOP senators have mostly said “no” to anything the president has wanted, a recalcitrance that has helped brand Republicans “the party of ‘no.’ ” But as Obama presses senators to ratify the nuclear arms treaty, Kyl appears to be angling to give the president what he wants in return for something the senator craves.

“I think there is no chance that a treaty can be completed in the lame-duck session,” Kyl told MSNBC shortly after Obama hosted a bipartisan gathering of high-profile supporters of the new strategic arms limitation treaty.

The agreement would cut by nearly one-third the numbers of long-range nuclear warheads Russia and the U.S. can have. It also would permit each country to inspect the other’s nuclear arsenal to ensure compliance.

Kyl is withholding his support — and that of many of the Republican senators he commands — because he wants the Obama administration to guarantee that at least $185 billion will be spent over the next 10 years on modernizing what will remain of America’s nuclear arsenal along with the submarines, bombers and missiles that are used to deliver them.

This surge in spending is a nuclear earmark, the kind of federal spending increase that will be hard to broker when Tea Partiers such as Kentucky senator-elect Rand Paul join the next Congress. “I think we need to have more discussion on it, but it doesn’t sound like I’m probably going to be in favor of that,” Paul said of the nuclear arms treaty during an appearance on ABC’s This Week With Christiane Amanpour shortly after the midterm elections.

Like other Tea Party Republicans who helped the GOP win control of the House and sharply reduce the size of the Democrats’ majority in the Senate, Paul is determined to cut the federal budget, including military spending. While national defense is important, “there’s still waste in the military budget,” which has to be smaller, he said.

Tea Party opposition to earmarks has already forced Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans to support a two-year ban on the funding of senators’ pet projects.

So, if Kyl is going to get the huge spending increase he wants in the nation’s nuclear weapons program, he’ll have to cut a deal to ratify the nuclear arms treaty during the lame-duck session, or risk having Tea Party Republicans scuttle such an agreement in the new Congress.

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