WASHINGTON -- The repeal of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy over the weekend was a major victory for the White House, but it is now imperiling a chief priority: the ratification of the nuclear-arms-reduction pact with Russia known as the New START Treaty. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) had promised the White House early last week that they would deliver the votes necessary to ratify the START treaty if the administration would pull the repeal of the military's DADT policy off the lame-duck agenda, according to Democratic aides familiar with the pair's offer.
The White House declined the offer and pushed ahead with repeal; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) brought it to the Senate floor Saturday, where it won 63 votes to defeat a filibuster, and 65 votes on final passage.
Now that DADT has been repealed, Graham is signaling he'll no longer vote for the treaty. "If you really want to have a chance of passing START, you better start over and do it in the next Congress because this lame duck has been poisoned," Graham said on CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday.
McCain, on the Senate floor last week, sought to beat back the notion that he would necessarily oppose the treaty if the DADT repeal went forward. "There continues to swirl allegations that there is going to be a vote for or against [START] because of another piece of legislation," McCain said. "I think the senator from South Carolina and you and I and every member of this body is very aware of the absolute importance of this treaty and for us to make the decision strictly based on the merits or demerits of the treaty," McCain said, referring to Graham and Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who was also on the floor.
The aides briefed on the pair's offer say that McCain and Graham were not promising to vote against START if the DADT repeal went forward, but rather that they promised to round up support for it if it didn't, a subtle but significant difference. Graham and McCain are highly respected within the party on foreign-policy issues and their support would assure passage.
It's a nuanced difference that Kyl laid out on the floor in response to McCain's rejection of the allegations. "This treaty stands or falls on its own merits. The other thing I would say, however, is that I have made the point for a long time that one of the impediments to ratifying this treaty, or to debating it or considering it in a meaningful way, was the intercession of all of the other business that was being put before the Senate, much of it very partisan," he said.
The repeal effort was led in the upper chamber by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a longtime friend and ally of both Graham and McCain. The trio traveled the country during McCain's presidential run and routinely works on legislation together, yet McCain and Graham still pulled out every defensive tactic available. (Spokespersons for McCain and Graham denied that any such offer was made to the White House.)
Lieberman, without naming Graham or McCain, complained of the tactic. The New York Times reported last week that "some Republicans are threatening to block the New Start treaty if the military repeal goes forward." Lieberman said that such a threat "takes us way back to an earlier day when people used to do things like that to stop civil rights laws from passing" -- aggressive language to describe the actions of close allies.
McCain, on the Senate floor, has complained loudly about the packed Senate lame-duck schedule. "So here we are, about 6 weeks after an election that repudiated the agenda of the other side, and we are jamming, or trying to jam, major issues through the Senate of the United States, because they know they cannot get it done beginning next January 5," McCain said during debate over DADT on Saturday.
"My friends, there is a lot of talk about compromise. There is a lot of talk about working together. You think what this bizarro world that the majority leader has been carrying us in, of cloture votes on this, votes on various issues that are on the political agenda of the other side -- to somehow think that beginning next January 5 we will all love one another and kumbaya? I do not think so. I do not think so," said McCain. Earlier that week, he accused Democrats of "fooling around" with other issues while the START treaty was the most pressing business.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said on the Senate floor that pursuing DADT was threatening the success of the START treaty. "I'm hoping that those will be taken down or else I don't think the future of the START treaty over the next several days is going to be successful, based on what I'm watching," said Corker, adding in a recent interview with The Washington Post's Greg Sargent that pushing for DADT repeal and other issues "is hardening them against passage of this treaty at this time," referring to unnamed Republican colleagues. He then clarified: "I just want to make sure it's clear they're not going to oppose the treaty permanently ... But it's hardening them against doing it right now."
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said that it was unfair of Republicans to complain about a lack of time to address the issues because it had been their obstruction that backed the Senate up.
"The food safety bill is a great example of the frivolous delay, where you had three cloture votes not so people could debate more, but just so they could take up all the time so that we'd be against the wall with the calendar and they could say, 'Why should we consider a treaty?' or, 'Why should we consider Don't Ask, Don't Tell or the DREAM Act? Because we're against the wall?' Well, that's because you kept us on food safety forever," said Merkley.