“New START” dead on arrival?

“New START” dead on arrival?

As the Obama administration finishes up negotiations over the lynchpin of its strategy of hitting the "reset button" on U.S. relations with Russia, the "New START" nuclear arms reduction treaty, the big lingering question on everyone’s mind is: Will the Senate actually be able to ratify the deal?

Senior Democratic senators, who strongly support the new treaty, aren’t so sure.

"It’s going to be hard to get it ratified," said Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-MI, in a Tuesday interview with The Cable. Levin said he hadn’t done a vote count, but wasn’t confident the treaty will get the 67 votes needed to make it the law of the land.

"I’m not even sure we’ll get a referral from the Foreign Relations Committee," Levin added, promising to at least hold hearings on the issue.

Meanwhile, senior Senators such as Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ, Senate Armed Services ranking Republican John McCain, R-AZ, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, have been sending the administration public warnings about what they don’t want to see in the agreement and have been using private methods to pressure the administration on the issue as well.

Kyl told The Cable in a brief interview Tuesday that he will not announce his stance until the final text surfaces, but there were some red lines that if crossed would trigger his opposition, which would be problematic.

 "Unless it is accompanied by a [nuclear] modernization program that satisfies the requirements of the secretary of defense, it would be very difficult for the Senate to support the new START treaty," he said.

As Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher has said, the administration’s new budget request does include a plan for what it calls "stockpile modernization," but Kyl complained that it "hasn’t been fleshed out."

Administration officials tell The Cable they believe leading GOP voices like Kyl haven’t yet decided whether to support ratification and are setting themselves up to be able to justify their decision either way when the time comes.

Kyl also stood by the letter that he, McCain, and Lieberman sent to National Security Advisor Jim Jones last week opposing any unilateral statement by Russia declaring its right to object to U.S. missile defenses by withdrawing from the treaty.

"I think it would be very damaging," Kyl said. "If there were a provision that the Russians would interpret as enabling them to unilaterally abandon the treaty if they didn’t like what we were doing on missile defense, I think that would be very troubling to me and my colleagues in the Senate."

Levin countered that the prospect of Russia declaring its right to withdraw was no justification for standing in the way of the agreement.

"They can withdraw unilaterally for any reason, so I don’t know that that’s a good reason to object," Levin said, adding, "The United States withdrew unilaterally from the ABM treaty when we decided it was in our interest, right?"