Republican go-to guy on nukes keeps Obama administration twisting in the wind on New START

Along with Richard Lugar (R-IN), Jon Kyl, the Republican Senate whip from Arizona, is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (KY) go-to guy on nuclear issues. We wrote yesterday at Focal Points:

After Republicans picked up six seats in the Senate earlier this month, prospects for the passage of the new START began to diminish (not that this author minds). Barron YoungSmith at the New Republic writes that last week “chief of staff to Senator Bob Corker — a key vote on the treaty — said that it should not be considered during the lame-duck Congress, and the Republican Policy Committee released a memo urging a similar delay.”

Kyl is known as a staunch supporter of nuclear weapons who made his mark as a freshman senator in 1999 when he blew up passage of the Comprehensive (nuclear) Test Ban Treaty. But, writes YoungSmith in the article I cited yesterday, “bizarrely enough, he seems to want [new START] to go through.” I continued:

Turns out, not so bizarrely. Desmond Butler for the Associated Press writes:
And that additional $10 billion, YoungSmith explains, is “on top of” . . .

. . . an initial massive $80 billion appropriation in Obama’s 2011 budget proposal [that Kyl demanded be] guaranteed over ten years. [In the end] Kyl’s proposal would pair New START with a huge cash bonanza for programs that would make it easier to maintain and upgrade our nuclear weapons in the future.

In other words, according to YoungSmith, Kyl “seems to think that securing long-term funding for nuclear modernization outweighs whatever qualms he might have about reducing our present arsenal.”

Writing for Time, Massimo Calabresi is wary of Kyl, though. Of his perceived openness to New START, Calabresi writes:

Maybe. But if Kyl’s primary characteristic as a Senator is subterfuge, his secondary characteristic is a tough devotion to his ideological positions. . . . And convincing Kyl to accept a large cut to the cap on U.S. strategic warheads runs counter to positions he has taken over 16 years in the Senate. That said, the administration has accurately identified something Kyl wants in exchange for accepting a “relatively benign treaty.”

Nuclear modernization and missile defense, that is. Those issues aside, writes Kelsey Hartigan at Democracy Arsenal, New START will be “the first test of whether the GOP can be trusted to lead. [Sen. Lugar] recently wrote that ‘the Republicans can’t just be the Party of No.’ [And as] Robert Kagan recently explained to his fellow conservatives, ratifying New START is a ‘good first step toward governing.’” Besides, writes Hartigan, “Screw up New START and you can kiss your nuclear pork goodbye.”

To what extent, should New START be shot down, remains to be seen. But we might find out. Yesterday at Politico, Laura Rozen reports that Kyl may be getting cold feet.

Seemingly shutting the door on one of the Obama administration’s key goals for this lame-duck session of Congress, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said Tuesday that he does not think the Senate should vote to ratify the START treaty before the end of the year. . . .”If the Republicans’ lead negotiator says we shouldn’t consider START during a lame duck, I think we have to take him at face value,” a leadership aide told POLITICO Tuesday. “Having said that, we are going to continue to try and get it ratified in the lame duck.”

Also, Kyl is due to speak with either — reports vary — Vice President Biden or Secretary Gates tomorrow. Remember: however pro-nuclear those opposed to New START may appear to be, they’re voting against a measure that Secretary Gates and the Pentagon support. A no vote would also keep U.S. access to Russia’s nuclear program via inspections closed as it has been for a year. More to the point, as Ms. Rozen reports, “The move could be a blow to the Obama’s administration’s ‘reset’ of relations with Russia, and for U.S.-Russian cooperation on countering Iran’s nuclear program, among other areas.”

In regards to Kyl’s statement that the Senate should wait until after the lame-duck session to address New START, she writes:

“Issuing a press statement while sensitive private talks are ongoing strikes me as an act of bad faith,” the nonproliferation hand said. “It only reinforces those who believe that Kyl is playing the administration for a fool, stringing out a series of concessions before abruptly calling the whole thing off.”

The Obama administration: played by the Republicans again?

First posted at the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

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