Lame-Duck Congress Set To Ratify START

Congress is closing in on ratifying a nuclear arms treaty with Russia. But in these final days of the lame-duck session, votes are shifting by the hour.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The Senate may address at least one more piece of business before it expires at the end of the year. President Obama's supporters believe they have the votes to ratify a nuclear treaty.

WERTHEIMER: Approving a treaty requires two-thirds of the senators present, meaning that some Republicans would have to vote yes. Several have indicated they're willing, but the vote count is still uncertain.

NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro is tracking the debate over START.

ARI SHAPIRO: If voting on the New START weapons treaty with Russia plays out as expected this week, it will be a first in several ways. It'll be the first time a nuclear arms treaty has ever been ratified during a lame-duck session of Congress. And it will be the first time a Senate minority leader has voted against such a measure.

That leader is Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He explained two major objections to the deal. It's coming too fast, he said, and it's a bone to the left.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): It's unfortunate that something as important as the Senate's consideration of a treaty like this one was truncated in order to meet another arbitrary deadline or the wish list of the liberal base.

SHAPIRO: Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts took on the first complaint. He shot back that this debate was not truncated, as McConnell claims.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): We wanted to hold this vote before the election. And what was the argument then by our friends on the other side of the aisle? Oh, no. Please don't do that. That'll politicize the treaty.

SHAPIRO: And the White House has always fought McConnell's second suggestion, that this weapons treaty is designed to appease the liberal base. In fact, many liberals say the treaty doesn't do enough to reduce weapons stockpiles. And they're angry at the amount of money the White House has spent on sweetening the deal to win Republican support.

President Obama said this in a recent interview on MORNING EDITION.

President BARACK OBAMA: Every secretary of Defense, national security advisor, secretary of state of previous administrations - Democrat and Republican - have said it's the right thing to do. George H.W. Bush put out a statement saying it's the right thing to do. We've got, you know, commentators from the left and the right saying it's the right thing to do. So it needs to get done.

SHAPIRO: But Republican Senator Mitch McConnell insists that this debate is more about domestic politics than about foreign affairs.

Sen. MCCONNELL: No senator should be forced to make decisions like this so we can tick off another item on someone's political checklist before the end of the year.

SHAPIRO: In fact, this debate has both domestic and foreign implications. Ratifying the treaty would impact relations with Russia, and it would be a political win for this White House. It comes at the end of a lame-duck session that has given the White House more victories than most people expected.

The president reached a tax-cut agreement with Republicans, and he fulfilled a major campaign promise with the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

In yesterday's White House briefing, spokesman Robert Gibbs repeatedly refused to say whether he believes Republicans are opposing the START treaty in order to deny President Obama another political win. This is the closest he came.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): It's a little vexing to figure out how somebody can say, in largely the same breath, that they're concerned about what the preamble does to missile defense, but they haven't had enough time to look at the treaty. I mean, that - it's either one or the other, but it can't be both. That doesn't make a ton of sense.

SHAPIRO: Some Republicans said yesterday their concern is purely substantive. The treaty would reduce weapons stockpiles and put verification systems in place between the U.S. and Russia.

And Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe argued that we can't rely on Russia to uphold its end of the bargain.

Senator JIM INHOFE (Republican, Oklahoma): And I know it's not nice to say and nobody - this offends a lot of people, but Russia cheats.

SHAPIRO: And John Thune of South Dakota said this is the wrong time for the U.S. to cut back on its weapons capabilities.

Senator JOHN THUNE (Republican, South Dakota): As we face an uncertain future where other nations like China continue to modernize their nuclear forces, we will need to be able to hold more potential targets at risk to deter attacks. That means we need to be very careful about reducing delivery vehicle levels.

SHAPIRO: Several Republicans support for this treaty. But ratification requires two-thirds of the Senate, and that magic number is proving hard to reach.

President Obama has been making phone calls, trying to win over undecided senators. It's not clear how many he has persuaded. But yesterday, Gibbs suggested they have crossed the threshold.

Mr. GIBBS: I don't think it'll be rejected.

SHAPIRO: The country will know soon whether he's right.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.

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