The search for 67 votes on New START

THE SEARCH FOR 67 VOTES ON NEW START…. Last week, about 36 hours after Democrats had lost their House majority, President Obama spoke briefly to reporters after a cabinet meeting. The key priority he emphasized: ratifying the New START nuclear treaty. The same morning, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also urged the Senate to approve the treaty, sooner rather than later.

This really shouldn’t be so difficult. The treaty not only advances our national security interests, it enjoys enthusiastic bipartisan support — mostly, with the exception of Sen. Dick Lugar, from Republican elder statesmen who are no longer in government, including most of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy team.

But the question remains whether there are 67 votes for ratification in the Senate. The treaty will need eight or nine Republicans to support it (depending on when Illinois’ Mark Kirk is seated), and only four GOP votes have been locked down.

The far-right, meanwhile, still hopes to derail the effort, as evidenced by an op-ed this week from John Bolton and John Yoo — a piece Fred Kaplan described as “ridiculous,” and “as slippery and dishonest” as anything he’s ever read

As of yesterday, there were at least hints of optimism on Capitol Hill.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the biggest congressional champion of the START arms-control treaty between the U.S. and Russia, said Wednesday that he expects a December vote on the agreement.

Conversations among Democratic leaders and with Republican critics have markedly increased in recent days in anticipation of a vote during the lame-duck session, Kerry said during a conference call from Israel. Kerry, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee and has been leading hearings on the treaty for much of this year, has been in the Mideast for the past six days meeting with state leaders.

Kerry said on Wednesday alone he spoke with Sen. Dick Lugar (Ind.), the committee’s ranking Republican, as well as Vice President Joe Biden, and also swapped calls with Senate GOP Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the treaty’s chief critic. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also been making calls, Kerry said, and President Obama has spoken with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) about getting the treaty on the chamber’s agenda in December.

Kerry is anxious to show momentum building on the treaty as the Senate’s lame-duck agenda starts to get crowded.

It’s hard to overstate what a no-brainer this should be. We’re talking about a treaty endorsed by six former secretaries of state and five former secretaries of defense from both parties; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; seven former Strategic Command chiefs; national security advisers from both parties, and nearly all former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces.

French Ambassador Pierre Vimont recently said that after he and other diplomats reported back to Europe about the possibility of congressional opposition to the treaty, “People ask us, ‘Have you been drinking?'”

The world just doesn’t appreciate just how crazy congressional Republicans have become.

Time is of the essence — not just because it’s been almost a year since U.S. inspectors lost the ability to keep tabs on Russian nukes; thanks Republicans — but because after the lame-duck session, passing New START in a 53-47 Senate will be even more difficult, if not impossible.

For many years, support for U.S. nuclear arms treaties has been overwhelming and bipartisan. The INF Treaty of 1988 was ratified on a 93-to-5 vote. The 1992 vote on START was 93 to 6. The SORT Treaty’s vote in 2003 was a unanimous 95-to-0 vote.

Now all we need is 67. If the votes don’t materialize, U.S. credibility will suffer a brutal setback, and the damage to American-Russian relations will be devastating.

As former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D) recently noted, if Senate Republicans block ratification of the treaty, “American credibility on nuclear issues would evaporate,” and every country that’s signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty would ask itself, “If the U.S. is unwilling to live up to its commitments, why should we live up to ours?”