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Administration and GOP preparing to fight over ‘treaty killer’ amendments for New START

Now that the Senate has declined to repeal the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy, the path could be clear for a full-on debate over the New START treaty with Russia, right? Not so fast. A huge fight is brewing on Capitol Hill over the dozens of amendments GOP senators are preparing to bring up during ...

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WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 7: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (R) listens as Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) (L) speaks to reporters after a caucus luncheon with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill December 7, 2010 in Washington, DC. The Obama administration is pushing for Congress to extend Bush-era tax cuts. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Now that the Senate has declined to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, the path could be clear for a full-on debate over the New START treaty with Russia, right? Not so fast. A huge fight is brewing on Capitol Hill over the dozens of amendments GOP senators are preparing to bring up during the debate, several of which the administration could consider "treaty killers."

Republicans are preparing to raise several dozen amendments to both the treaty itself and the Senate's resolution on ratification. And, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) unlikely to bring New START to the Senate floor until after the issue of extending the Bush administration tax cuts is resolved, time is running out to set aside the two weeks of floor time Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) says is needed to properly address the treaty.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and the administration have been telling GOP senators that some of their amendments cannot be brought up on the Senate floor because, if adopted, they would force the treaty to go back to the Russians for another round of negotiations. Multiple GOP Senate aides told The Cable that the treaty supporters were calling these amendments "treaty killers."

Now that the Senate has declined to repeal the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy, the path could be clear for a full-on debate over the New START treaty with Russia, right? Not so fast. A huge fight is brewing on Capitol Hill over the dozens of amendments GOP senators are preparing to bring up during the debate, several of which the administration could consider "treaty killers."

Republicans are preparing to raise several dozen amendments to both the treaty itself and the Senate’s resolution on ratification. And, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) unlikely to bring New START to the Senate floor until after the issue of extending the Bush administration tax cuts is resolved, time is running out to set aside the two weeks of floor time Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) says is needed to properly address the treaty.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and the administration have been telling GOP senators that some of their amendments cannot be brought up on the Senate floor because, if adopted, they would force the treaty to go back to the Russians for another round of negotiations. Multiple GOP Senate aides told The Cable that the treaty supporters were calling these amendments "treaty killers."

"There are several dozen amendments kicking around on our side to address problems with the treaty. But, the administration and the SFRC folks will probably label any threatening amendment as a ‘treaty killer,’" said one GOP Senate aide involved in the issue, who felt that using the term is not a substantive argument. "I expect that’s how they would try to defeat most of our amendments, though ‘treaty killer’ seems to be just code for ‘we don’t want to push this with the Russians.’"

The amendments being circulated now cover the whole litany of concerns that GOP senators have raised about New START treaty for months, including missile defense, nuclear modernization, Iran policy, tactical nuclear weapons, and verification of the treaty’s provisions.

The one amendment that could really rile up the Russians and force further protracted negotiations on the treaty is one being circulated that would strip the treaty’s preamble of language that acknowledges a relationship between offensive and defensive capabilities. The administration has said repeatedly this language doesn’t constrain U.S. missile defense plans but many Republicans want to see it gone nonetheless.

GOP senators are already starting to publicly criticize the coming process for debating the treaty and are objecting to any deal that would limit the possibility of amendments.

"Clearly, the New START treaty has very serious implications for U.S. national security, and it would be a mistake for the Senate to consider it in a hasty fashion," Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said Thursday. "When this treaty reaches the Senate floor, the majority should allow open and unhurried consideration. If the treaty’s defects can be properly addressed through the amendment process, it would have a better chance of getting bipartisan support."

Meanwhile, the administration and Kerry continue to work behind the scenes with top GOP senators, including Kyl and John McCain (R-AZ). Nobody knows whether they will reach a deal in time, but the longer the negotiations drag on and the longer the tax issue remains unresolved, the dimmer the chances of ratifying New START this year.

The administration may be right that certain amendments would force a renegotiation that could delay the treaty for months or more. Regardless, the angst among GOP offices on Capitol Hill is real — as is the administration’s frustration with Republicans.

Here’s a taste of the debate to come. "If the treaty is actually in the national interest of both nations, as the administration claims, then there can be no such thing as a ‘treaty killer’ amendment," said one senior GOP aide. "But this is part and parcel of the Administration’s failure, since day one, to respect the Senate’s role of advice and consent." 

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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