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START Treaty Still Hangs in Balance

The fate of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty remained unclear Friday as the Senate continued to debate President Barack Obama’s top foreign policy priority amid flaring tempers on both sides of the aisle and continued Republican threats to block ratification.

Senate Republicans, as they have done throughout the lame-duck session, argued consideration of START should be kicked to early next year, when it could, in their view, receive a more thorough and more fair floor debate. Key Republicans, whose support for START could determine whether enough GOP votes materialize to ensure ratification, said Democrats’ insistence on debating the treaty on a dual track with other legislative measures was only imperiling its odds of clearing the Senate.

“The problem with having all of these political votes is that it certainly doesn’t help create an atmosphere of cooperation on other issues,” Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl said Friday afternoon on his way to the floor to speak about the problems he has with START. The Arizona Republican is the lead GOP negotiator on the treaty.

Ratification requires a supermajority of 67 votes.

Democrats cried foul, charging the Republicans with looking for any excuse to block ratification of START before the 111th Congress concludes Jan. 4. Every Member of the Democratic Conference is prepared to vote in favor of the treaty, and none plan to offer amendments. Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Richard Lugar (Ind.) represents the only clear Republican vote for START at this point.

“The START treaty is not some casual policy or arcane piece of legislation. It’s about our national security,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said. “They should deal with it on its own merits.”

Earlier Friday, Sen. Bob Corker went so far as to say on the Senate floor that the determination of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to hold a second round of votes on the DREAM Act immigration measure and the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy banning openly gay service members would ensure that Republicans block START in retaliation. The Tennessee Republican said he told Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as much Friday morning.

Corker, who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he was inclined to back the treaty on its merits, but would withhold his support in response to what he deemed the Democrats’ political games. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), an ally of Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.), denied Republicans were linking START’s fate to the Democratic push on “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the DREAM Act. Both measures are priorities for the liberal Democratic base.

But Graham said Republicans are angry at Reid’s handling of the lame-duck session and said the relationship between the majority and minority conferences was not conducive to the GOP supporting START in sufficient numbers for ratification. Additionally, Graham said his substantive disagreements with the treaty have not been resolved, suggesting his ongoing negotiations with the White House are going nowhere.

“Harry Reid has basically said that he cares more about the political agenda of the next and last election than he does about a serious debate about foreign policy,” Graham said. “It didn’t have to be this way. But this lame duck has run its course. There’s nobody interested in using it for political purposes any longer.”

As the second full day of debate on START dragged into Friday evening and Senators prepared for Saturday votes on the DREAM Act and “don’t ask, don’t tell,” there was no firm indication as to when consideration of the treaty would conclude, although the discussed timeline calls for the Senate to vote on ratification early next week.

Republicans finally began offering amendments to START after offering none Thursday. But there was still no agreement on how many would be offered and how much time for debate would be allowed on each proposal. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry continued to politely press Republicans to speed up the process and for a schedule of what they wanted in terms of amendments and debate time.

The Massachusetts Democrat was unable to obtain a firm proposal from the Republicans in this regard. Meanwhile, the Senate was expected to continue debating well into Friday evening on an amendment to START offered by McCain and Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.).

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