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Senate September Showdown

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Hillary Clinton did not pull her punches at the podium last week. "Our national security is at risk," she said last Wednesday. "When the Senate returns" from its August break, the Secretary of State warned, "they must act" to approve a new nuclear arms reduction pact. Her remarks signaled a new determination in the Obama administration not to play the patsy for GOP delay tactics. She raised the stakes in a looming showdown this September.

Clinton is worried that partisan politics and parochialism will trump national security interests in an election year. At issue is the ability of the United States to monitor developments in Russia's vast nuclear arsenal--the only weapons in the world that can destroy America. Since Ronald Reagan's original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, expired last December, US inspectors have not been allowed in Russia's weapons bases or plants.

The fix is at hand. The administration has negotiated a workman-like extension of the treaty. The New START agreement improves and streamlines the inspections, and reduces both nations' long-range nuclear weapons by about 30 percent from previously allowed levels. It builds the foundation for further US-Russian reductions and tougher measures to prevent new states from getting nuclear bombs.

"There is an urgency to ratify this treaty," Clinton said, "Our ability to know and understand changes in Russia's nuclear arsenal will erode without the treaty. As time passes, uncertainty will increase. With uncertainty comes unpredictability, which, when you're dealing with nuclear weapons, is absolutely a problem...Ratifying the New START treaty will prevent that outcome."

The same day, Clinton picked up support from the conservative Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE), who told military officers assembled at the headquarters of the US Strategic Command in Omaha, "America will be stronger if we can continue to look under Russia's hood, and they under ours." He warned, "Without this treaty, our understanding of Russian nuclear forces would deteriorate. We'd have a tendency for U.S forces to overcompensate for what we don't know. That's a losing strategy in an era of large budget deficits and needed fiscal constraint."

Since President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed New START in April, administration officials and Senate Democrats have made the case for the treaty on its merits.

And what a case has been made. More than 70 former high-level government officials and senior military leaders have come out in favor. All of the former secretaries of state, secretaries of defense, and national security advisors going back to the Nixon administration who have spoken on the treaty have supported it. None have opposed it.

The agreement has won the support of several independent bipartisan groups, including the new Consensus for American Security, whose members include former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Senator Chuck Hagel and 15 high-ranking military officers. They say the treaty is "a critical and essential first step" to a smart, 21st century nuclear agenda. Consensus member and former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral William Owens said, "I am totally convinced that the provisions of New START are in the best interests of our country."

The entire American military and national security command feel the same way. "This treaty has the full support of your uniformed military," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen told the Senate. Even the chief opponent of the treaty, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the Republican whip, calls it "relatively benign." Apart from a few experts assembled by the far-right Heritage Foundation, there is no serious expert opposition. The only leading Republican to flatly oppose the pact is former Governor Mitch Romney, whose op-ed was universally panned as uninformed and factually incorrect.

Still, the Republican Senate leadership has delayed approval, forcing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to postpone a vote scheduled for August 4 until September 15. This infuriated the ranking Republican member on the Committee, Richard Lugar (R-IN). "We ought to vote now and let the chips fall where they may," he said. "At some point we need to think about the United States of America and our security interests." He is worried that further delays could mean that the treaty could not be approved before the Senate adjourns for the November elections.

And that may be the point. It appears to many that the GOP leadership is ready to approve the treaty next year but doesn't want to give Obama a "victory" before the critical mid-term elections. The White House strategy of keeping this low-key and arguing purely on the merits has won over several key senators now leaning in favor of the treaty, but has not made a dent in the political calculus of the Republican leadership. Hence, Clinton's gambit to raise the price of further delay.

"Some have apparently already decided that denying the President a victory is more important than America's national security interests," said former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. His speech at the Center for American Progress July 19 was a hard-hitting assault on the GOP's obstructionism and may have influenced the new administration approach. Daschle favors calling out the right. He said:

Too many have already decided to surrender to the most extreme voices on the right at the expense of basic integrity. But New START is so widely acknowledged to be the right move that it presents conservatives in Congress with a clear choice: They can choose politics, or they can choose governing. They can choose Mitt Romney, or they can choose the entire U.S. military establishment. They can choose a world with a greater risk of nuclear disorder, or one with less. On this issue, there is simply no in between.

Until Clinton's speech, the White House wasn't looking for a political battle. Officials stressed that this treaty was a continuation of the bipartisan approach that has seen past nuclear reduction treaties pass by 90 votes or more. Democrats wanted to do this one with the Republicans--not at their expense.

Clinton is still hoping for agreement. She has a close, personal relationship with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). In fact, she flew directly from the signing of the New START treaty in Prague April 8 to speak with the Republican leader at the McConnell Center in Louisville, Kentucky. This past Tuesday, she reiterated that the treaty "is another step in the process of bilateral nuclear reductions initiated by President Reagan and supported overwhelmingly by both Republican and Democratic presidents and congresses alike."

But now the sweetness is backed up with a little heat. It may be a combination that proves more effective than the all-sugar-no-stick approach that has seen many Obama initiatives die a slow death in Senate committees.

When the Senate returns in September, it will mark 280 days since US weapon inspectors have been allowed in Russia. We will find out if Clinton's strategy will convince the Senate Republican leadership to let them return.