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The Burning New START Question: How Many Votes Can Dick Lugar Command?

In the spirit of self-criticism, something that I see my New START coverage has taken for granted is the support of Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the leading arms-control baron on the Republican side in the Senate and long a driving force behind the move to secure loose nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union. Lugar is firmly behind the Obama administration’s new treaty to reduce the U.S.-Russian nuclear stockpile and the deployed systems that can deliver those deadly payloads. So if you assume every Democratic senator will vote for the treaty when it comes up for ratification, Lugar’s vote brings the count to 60. The question is whether Lugar’s vote can bring along seven other Republicans.

Lugar’s brand of moderate internationalism is a dying one in an increasingly bellicose Senate GOP caucus. Take a look at the 2003 vote on the last nuclear reduction treaty with Moscow. Enough GOPers who voted for it are still in the Senate to provide for ratification — John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Pat Roberts (R-Kans.), I could go on — but Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), now the Senate GOP leader, didn’t even vote on a Bush administration priority. And enough of the newer, smaller class of GOP senators are either further to the right or disinterested in bipartisan foreign policy when cobbled together by a Democratic president as to raise questions about to who goes along with Lugar’s exhortations.

What’s more, that acrimonious tenor is likely to flip some of the 2003 yes votes to either no votes or abstentions, however striking the hypocrisy. McCain is seeking re-election and has said that the health care law ensures that all additional Obama agenda items won’t get any GOP support. Graham made similar noise in a Fox News interview last week, but gave himself wiggle room, especially as he tries to retain the White House’s good faith on immigration and terrorism detentions. But if the leadership decides to continue its wholesale rejection of the Obama agenda, then it’s unclear how much Lugar’s support will cash out into actual votes.

That said, it’s not worth nothing. Lugar’s backing will get the treaty out of the Foreign Relations Committee, something that was hardly certain as recently as last month. The administration also has the lever of Ronald Reagan’s fulsome quotes about seeking a nuke-free world to use against recalcitrant GOP senators. (“[M]y central arms control objective has been to reduce substantially, and ultimately to eliminate, nuclear weapons and rid the world of the nuclear threat” is just one example among many.) Perhaps that’ll be enough to get seven more votes. It’s just not clear yet. If not, it won’t just be an indictment of the Obama administration’s legislative acumen. It’ll be a statement about the collapse of what used to be a bipartisan international priority, most fervently advocated by the most sainted GOP president of all.

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