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Mark Kirk: A long way from yes on New START

10 incoming GOP senators wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) today to demand the right to vote on the New START treaty with Russia. Senator-elect Mark Kirk (R-IL) didn’t sign that letter, but his staff told The Cable that he hasn’t decided how he will vote yet and won’t decide until he receives ...

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10 incoming GOP senators wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) today to demand the right to vote on the New START treaty with Russia. Senator-elect Mark Kirk (R-IL) didn't sign that letter, but his staff told The Cable that he hasn't decided how he will vote yet and won't decide until he receives several specific things from the Obama administration.

Kirk is a key vote, and not just because he is a moderate GOP lawmaker with decades of military and foreign policy experience. Kirk will fill the seat being vacated by appointee Roland Burris, which means he will be seated this year, probably shortly after the Thanksgiving break. So if somehow the administration is able to secure a vote on New START this year, Kirk will be one of three brand-new senators who will vote on the pact, along with Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Chris Coons (D-DE). Among them, Kirk is the only Republican taking over for a departing Democrat.

"The Senator-elect wants to carefully review all available information before making a decision on this matter," Kirk spokesman Lance Trover told The Cable Thursday.

10 incoming GOP senators wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) today to demand the right to vote on the New START treaty with Russia. Senator-elect Mark Kirk (R-IL) didn’t sign that letter, but his staff told The Cable that he hasn’t decided how he will vote yet and won’t decide until he receives several specific things from the Obama administration.

Kirk is a key vote, and not just because he is a moderate GOP lawmaker with decades of military and foreign policy experience. Kirk will fill the seat being vacated by appointee Roland Burris, which means he will be seated this year, probably shortly after the Thanksgiving break. So if somehow the administration is able to secure a vote on New START this year, Kirk will be one of three brand-new senators who will vote on the pact, along with Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Chris Coons (D-DE). Among them, Kirk is the only Republican taking over for a departing Democrat.

"The Senator-elect wants to carefully review all available information before making a decision on this matter," Kirk spokesman Lance Trover told The Cable Thursday.

An aide to Kirk explained to The Cable  that Kirk is asking for multiple pieces of information before he makes up his mind:  copies of the complete negotiating record of the treaty; documents related to a parallel discussion on U.S.-Russian missile defense cooperation conducted by Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher and her Russian counterpart deputy foreign minister Sergei Rybakov; classified briefings on the reliability of America’s nuclear warheads from the directors of the Sandia, Los Alamos, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories; U.S. Strategic Command’s written analysis prepared to support the treaty negotiations; planning documents showing the administration’ commitment to modernize the three legs of the U.S. nuclear deterrent; and formal briefings from the Departments of State, Defense, and Energy.

That’s a lot of data for the administration to pull together for Kirk before the end of the year. The administration has so far refused to provide senators with the full negotiating record or the inside details of the Tauscher-Rybakov discussions, so that could also be a stumbling block in the effort to win Kirk’s vote.

On a conference call Thursday afternoon, The Cable asked Ben Chang, deputy spokesman for the National Security Staff, if the administration would entertain the idea of handing over the full negotiating record for New START.

Chang wouldn’t say. But he reiterated that " there is time on the Senate calendar to get the treaty ratified this year and we are committed to do so."

So what about the other two new senators who will be seated during the lame duck? We haven’t been able to get a response from Coons on his position, but Manchin spokesperson Lara Ramsburg told The Cable that "Joe Manchin’s governing philosophy on defense policy will be to listen to our commanders and generals on the ground, and before he can cast a vote for or against START II, he will need to assess their recommendations." We’re still trying to figure out just what that means, considering that every military leader from Defense Secretary Robert Gates on down has voiced strong support.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama continues to pledge to push for a treaty vote this year and has tasked Vice President Joseph Biden to work on it "day and night."

"It is a national security imperative that the United States ratify the New START treaty this year," Obama said Thursday. "There is no higher national security priority for the lame duck session of Congress. The stakes for American national security are clear, and they are high."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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