Republicans can be expected to try to sandbag many current Democratic initiatives when the new House majority takes over in January. But few political observers expected Senate Republicans to use the current lame-duck session to derail a new strategic arms-control treaty with Russia that has been exhaustively studied and widely endorsed.
They are wrong to take that path. The new Start treaty is clearly needed to reinforce strategic cooperation and friendlier relations with Russia, and to solidify efforts to contain Iran's nuclear programs.
The proposed treaty, the first to be negotiated with Russia in 10 years, would replace the old Start treaty that lapsed last year, leaving a nuclear-treaty void for the first time since the Cold War. It would require both Russia and the United States to reduce the number of each nation's deployed nuclear warheads from 2,200 to 1,550, and limit the number of launchers to 700. Equally important, it would re-establish verification inspections and require exchanges of information on relevant nuclear weapons issues.
There was no acceptable reason for Arizona Sen. John Kyl, the Senate's chief Republican negotiator on the proposed treaty, to announce last Wednesday that he would oppose and help block a vote on the pending treaty. Indeed, his statement that time in the lame-duck session is too short to resolve what he claimed were remaining "complex issues" concerning the treaty seems a blatant contrivance - an artifice to mask an obvious effort to damage President Obama politically by undercutting his ability to improve security and foreign relations in key areas abroad.
Kyl's galling move is surprising given the great value of renewing a treaty with Russia. His obstructionism puts partisan politics ahead of national security and the nation's most vital international interests. That's a lump we would think Republicans couldn't swallow given their frequent grandstanding on the importance of national security and limiting partisanship at the border.
Thwarting an agreement with Russia, and thus boosting its Soviet-era revanchism, is too risky for words. Russia has been a helpful collaborator to Iran on civilian nuclear plants. Yet Moscow is also a member of the group of nations engaged in negotiations with Iran to get its government to shut down its openly apparent effort to build nuclear weapons.
Reaching agreement on a new Start treaty with Russia would help cement U.S. efforts under Obama, and past presidents, to keep Russia more friendly and more closely engaged with the West. Blocking the treaty, by contrast, would leave Russia more easily led by its old hard-liners to continue policies and relationships on its Asian flank that are inimical U.S. and European interests and security.
The Obama administration, moreover, has bent over backward to mitigate any concern about the impact of the new treaty. It committed, for example, to put an additional $84 billion over 10 years in the Pentagon budget - 20 percent more than the prior Bush administration - for modernization of the American nuclear arsenal.
The administration has also engaged in 21 Senate hearings on the treaty, and achieved an impressive array of bipartisan support for the treaty. Among those who have endorsed the treaty, in addition to Secretary of Defense William Gates, are five former secretaries of defense and six former secretaries of state, all from both parties, and seven former commanders of nuclear weapons.
But without a change in Kyl's attitude, Republicans may well deny the administration the two-thirds (67) bipartisan votes necessary to approve the treaty. Republicans would best take the advice of Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, their party's most authoritative arms-control expert. He strongly supports the treaty and is urging Obama and the GOP to move rapidly in the lame-duck session to approve it. His party, and the nation's security, would be greatly enhanced if his advice is followed.