Will New Start Be Kyl-led?

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Last Thursday, Veterans Day, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona to try and convince him to support the New Start treaty, which the administration is trying to get ratified in the Senate by the end of the year, administration officials familiar with the discussion tell Time. The treaty, a cornerstone of Obama’s approach to international affairs, would lower the cap on U.S. and Russian strategic warheads from 2,200 to 1,550 and would be a major victory for the president.

Kyl (pronounced KILE) listened attentively to Gates, a Republican who has served as Defense Secretary for both Obama and George W. Bush. And at Gates’ request, Kyl agreed to receive a briefing from two top Defense Department officials in Arizona, where Kyl had returned from Washington for the Congressional recess. The next day Gen. Kevin Chilton, the four-star commander of America’s nuclear forces, and Jim Miller, a top civilian staffer, flew out to Arizona to meet with Kyl.

When they arrived, Chilton and Miller went straight at one of Kyl’s biggest concerns about the treaty: the reliability of America’s nuclear deterrent. In exchange for his vote backing the treaty, Chilton and Miller said, Obama would fund a $4.1 billion increase for nuclear modernization from 2012-16. That offer comes on top of existing Obama budget proposals to spend $80 billion over ten years on the nuclear weapons complex and well over $100 billion for modernizing the nuclear triad, including notional outlays for buying new nuclear submarines and new nuclear bombers—in total an increase of some $10 billion over previous plans, according to White House estimates. But the offer of an additional $4.1 billion, including $1 billion for worker pensions, Chilton and Miller said, was only good until the end of the year.

There’s a reason the Obama administration is taking such extraordinary measures to win Kyl’s support. Long operating in the shadow of the senior Senator from Arizona, John McCain, Kyl has become one of the most powerful Republicans on the Hill through mastery of policy, strong staffing and unmatched skill as a behind-the-scenes operator. When it comes to nuclear policy, he speaks for the right wing of the GOP. “[GOP Senate leader Mitch] McConnell is looking to Sen. Kyl and Sen. [Richard] Lugar [who already supports the treaty] as the leading Republicans on this: if Kyl’s OK with it, McConnell’s OK with it,” says a senior administration official.

Kyl has a long history with America’s nuclear policy. He made his first mark on the national stage as a freshman Senator in 1999 by secretly convincing 34 Republicans to oppose the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), arguing that it was lax on verification and weakened reliability of the U.S. arsenal. Democrats thought they had the 67 votes they needed to pass the treaty, but when then-Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms of North Carolina complied with their demands and let the treaty go to the floor of the Senate, Kyl sprung his trap and the treaty died an ugly death, 48-51.

Since then, Kyl has excelled in legislative dark arts in other areas of expertise including the judiciary, counterterrorism and tax policy. In October 2005, Kyl led the behind-the-scenes effort to kill Harriett Miers nomination to the Supreme Court, dealing a blow to President George Bush but making himself a hero to the right. The next month, he cashed in a long-planned effort to block U.S. courts from hearing cases brought by prisoners held as terrorists: the bill was brought by Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Judge Advocate General and perceived moderate, but was written by Kyl’s staff. “It was a situation where it was best handled by Lindsey,” Kyl later said. Earlier in 2005 he almost succeeded in killing the estate tax but was derailed by Hurricane Katrina.

With his reticence on New Start, Kyl is back where he began on nuclear policy. Last October, he wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal decrying Obama’s embrace of the CTBT (it still hasn’t passed and Obama wants it). Kyl argued that the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent would be endangered by the original CTBT and that “concerns over aging and reliability have only grown.” But last July, Kyl penned another op-ed in the Wall Street Journal signaling the possibility of supporting New Start. “If the Obama administration was clearly articulating that our nuclear posture is going to be strong and properly resourced,” Kyl wrote, “Most senators will likely view the treaty as relatively benign.”

That looked like an opening bid to Obama, and it is those concerns that the White House sought to assuage with even more funding Friday in Arizona. Some skeptics on Capitol Hill think Kyl’s just in it for parochial reasons, that he’s looking for earmarks for Arizona. But in fact there are no facilities in Arizona that will benefit from the new money—most are in New Mexico, Tennessee and Texas. The challenge is deeper than that, say administration officials familiar with the talks. “He’s genuinely concerned about modernization,” says one official familiar with the discussions, “And he’s open to being persuaded.”

Maybe. But if Kyl’s primary characteristic as a Senator is subterfuge, his secondary characteristic is a tough devotion to his ideological positions, and neither breeds confidence that he’ll back the treaty in the end. Politically, he has every reason not to give Obama a win, especially now when the president needs one. And convincing Kyl to accept a large cut to the cap on U.S. strategic warheads runs counter to positions he has taken over 16 years in the Senate.

That said, the administration has accurately identified something Kyl wants in exchange for accepting a “relatively benign treaty.” “I don’t think he likes this treaty but he’ll swallow hard if he gets modernization,” says the senior administration official. If he does, it will be a hard-earned victory for Obama. And Gates. The administration even considered sending Gates to Arizona at one point last week to work on Kyl, but it looks as if Chilton and Miller may have had an effect. Graham said on ABC’s This Week Sunday that “Jon Kyl is working with the administration to get better modernization to make sure that missile defense is not connected to START. If you could get those two things together, I would vote for the treaty.”

Later this week at a NATO summit in Lisbon, Obama will move a proposed new missile defense program for Europe. Gates and Kyl are looking to set up a meeting for Thursday to discuss the new modernization money. The administration hopes for a vote on New Start in early December.