The Cable

Corker has an open mind on New START

Mark down Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Bob Corker, R-TN, as an undecided leaning toward supporting President Obama‘s nuclear-arms reductions treaty with Russia. Everybody interested in New START in Washington has been trying to do their own whip counts of GOP senators to see if Obama will be able get the eight to 10 Republican ...

Mark down Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Bob Corker, R-TN, as an undecided leaning toward supporting President Obama‘s nuclear-arms reductions treaty with Russia.

Everybody interested in New START in Washington has been trying to do their own whip counts of GOP senators to see if Obama will be able get the eight to 10 Republican votes he will need to put the agreement into effect. Only one GOP senator (Richard Lugar, R-IN) has declared he will definitely support it. Just two (Jim DeMint, R-SC, and James Inhofe, R-OK) have said they will definitely vote no.

But there was much angst when all seven Republicans on the SFRC, except for Lugar, wrote to Chairman John Kerry, D-MA, on June 29 to complain that he was going too fast by pledging to move the treaty out of committee by the August recess. Corker signed that letter.

This week, the administration has been working those seven senators hard, and it seems to be working. Corker visited Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday to talk about the treaty. Today, The Cable chased him down (literally) in the subway that connects the Capitol building to the Senate office buildings, and he said "I’m undecided but I’m very open [to supporting the treaty]."

Corker said he’s not thrilled with the agreement but he’s not opposed to the idea of reducing the nuclear arsenal on its face, unlike former governor Mitt Romney, who is raising cash based on his opposition to the pact. All Corker wants is a robust plan for nuclear modernization — upgrading the United States’ existing stockpile of atomic weapons and making sure they are in great condition — and he should be good to go.

"The big issue at the end of the day in my opinion that’s going to affect the approval of the treaty is going to be the real commitment to modernization and a real concrete plan over time of what specifically is going to happen," he said. "If we knew everything we had was modern and up to date, we could reduce even more."

That roughly matches the position of Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ, who is furiously negotiating with the administration and Kerry to come to some agreement to move the treaty forward. Your humble Cable guy overheard a conversation in the hallway between a leading Democratic senator and a top staffer about a letter from President Obama to Kyl that was in the works, meant to alleviate Kyl’s skepticism about the deal.

Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, who led the negotiations, briefed committee members Wednesday morning behind closed doors. Defense Secretary Robert Gates came to Capitol Hill Tuesday to make the case to the GOP. It’s been reported that Vice President Joseph Biden is leading the administration’s negotiations with Kyl. The full-court press is on.

As for modernization, the administration’s fiscal 2011 budget request does have extensive funding for modernization, but Republicans want a longer-term plan. The Energy Department submitted its idea for that program to Congress in May, which was leaked and then published by the Federation of American Scientists. The DOE thinks the total effort could cost $175 billion.

The timing aspect is crucial because the GOP might want to stall long enough to deny Obama a foreign-policy victory before the November election. Another reason for Republicans to stall could be that they plan to vote for the treaty, but don’t want to have to defend it before the elections to conservative voters across the country who are hearing from Romney & co. that the treaty weakens America.

For the Democrats, they know they can’t wait until the new Congress gets seated, when even more GOP votes will likely be needed. So a possible compromise being discussed is to pass it during the lame-duck session in December, when senators can somewhat disregard the politics. It’s too early to say that’s the plan … yet.

 Twitter: @joshrogin
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