WASHINGTON -- Senator John F. Kerry, laboring to achieve a foreign policy victory that would be a highlight of his career, gained crucial support yesterday for a nuclear arms control treaty with Russia from his Massachusetts colleague, Republican Senator Scott Brown.
Brown's backing gave Kerry additional momentum heading into a possible vote today. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry is President Obama's man in charge of trying to lock down the two-thirds support of the Senate -- 67 votes if every members shows up — required to ratify the New START pact.
Kerry and other senators have predicted passage but as of last evening there had not yet been enough public declarations of support to push it over the top.
Brown said he would buck GOP Senate leadership and vote in favor of the treaty, which would reduce nuclear warheads by approximately one third, late yesterday after a secret intelligence briefing for senators. It was the second dramatic move across the aisle by Brown in the last week. On Saturday, he supported repealing the military's ``don't ask, don't tell'' policy banning gays and lesbians in the military.
"I’ve done my due diligence, and I’m going to be ... ultimately supporting the START treaty," Brown told reporters in the Capitol. "I believe it’s something that’s important for our country, and I believe that it’s a good move forward to deal with our national security issues.”
Brown was among 18 senators Secretary of State Hillary Clinton contacted about the treaty.
Republican leaders are trying to block the measure procedurally or kill it with amendments that would force its renegotiation with the Russians. For months, Kerry has met with fellow senators and strategized with White House officials. Winning passage is one of the greatest challenges of his 25-year Senate career and the outcome could have a significant impact on his legacy.
Kerry remained confident yesterday, saying, “I believe we have the votes to pass this treaty.”
“If Kerry is successful, it means he comes out of the shadow of Ted Kennedy,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University who studies Congress, referring to Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the late Massachusetts Democrat. “This is a career turning point and if he succeeds he lays claim to being a legislator of the first order.”
The treaty would reduce strategic nuclear warheads by about a third on each side, to 1,550, and set up protocols for inspections of each nation’s warheads.
The Senate is expected to vote today on whether to cut off debate on the treaty and proceed to a ratification vote, perhaps later in the day or tomorrow. The treaty is likely to pick up the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster, and a Globe count of the votes—based on the public statements of a number of Republican senators—suggests that the treaty is close to
having the votes needed to pass.
If all 58 senators who caucus with Democrats vote in favor, they would need nine Republicans to join them.
At least six have said publicly that they plan to vote for the treaty, and two others voted for it in a committee earlier this year. That would mean its supporters need just one more Republican, and there are a half dozen who are possibilities. Among them is Senator Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican who is on a top Democrats’ list of supporters.
Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat of New York, said yesterday that Cochran was going to vote for it, but Cochran later said he was still evaluating the treaty.
Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, suggested that he could be supportive.
"I voted for it out of committee, and I said at that time that there were some caveats," Corker told reporters. "It appears to me that the caveats that I've laid out are going to be dealt with."
Ratification of the treaty requires support from two-thirds of all senators present and voting. One variable is whether Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who underwent surgery yesterday for prostate cancer, will vote on the treaty. If all 100 senators are present, it would require 67 votes. If Wyden is missing, it would require 66 senators. But because Wyden supports the treaty, the Democrats will need nine Republican senators – the same number they would need if he is absent – if the other 57 senators who caucus with Democrats vote in favor.
For the sixth day yesterday, Kerry led the Senate debate on the pact. Republican opponents charged that language in the treaty would restrain US missile defense efforts, or, if the US pushes ahead with missile defense, provide Russia with an excuse to leave the treaty.
One senator whom Kerry had hoped to persuade, Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, said yesterday he was leaning against the treaty. It was Graham who had promised to work with Kerry to pass climate change legislation earlier this year, only to withdraw his support, effectively scuttling that bill in a devastating defeat for Kerry. Last week, Graham complained about the way the Senate on Saturday passed legislation to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" rule on gays and lesbians serving in the armed forces. Yesterday, he accused Democrats of trying to rush legislation through before the end of the session.
“I’m a guy that was open minded to a START treaty being taken up in a lame-duck [session] if it was done in a reasonable way," Graham said yesterday. "Right now, the lame duck’s become special interest politics and the START treaty is mixed up in that. They passed a lot of things in a very Draconian fashion.”
With the clock ticking toward today’s vote, Kerry ramped up the pressure yesterday, releasing a letter supporting the treaty from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen.
"It will stregthen the US leadership role in reducing the proliferation of nuclear weapons," Mullen wrote yesterday, in a letter addressed to Kerry, saying that the pact has "the full support of your uniformed military."
Meanwhile, a leading arms control group sought to discredit some of the expert analysis being cited by Republican opponents as cause for voting against the treaty.
The Arms Control Association called on senators to scrutinize the track records of several former Republican defense officials who are lobbying against New START, including Richard Perle and Frank Gaffney, who served under President Ronald Reagan, and Douglas Feith, the under secretary of defense in the administration of President George W. Bush.
The association specifically cited the trio's opposition, along with the conservative Heritage Foundation, to the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty with the then-Soviet Union, which is now considered a landmark agreement that significantly reduced nuclear dangers.
"The dozen or so opponents of the treaty speaking on the floor are rejecting the advice of the US military in favor of the discredited theories of anti-arms control experts who proposed 25 years ago to reject Ronald Reagan's INF Treaty and the first START treaty," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
With reports from Globe staff writer Bryan Bender.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.