James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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The Gauntlet Is Thrown Down

by James M. Lindsay
November 18, 2010

Walking by Westminster this morning I was reminded of the grandeur of democracy.  Watching the battle back in Washington over the New START Treaty, I am reminded that democratic practice is often more bare knuckled than grand.

The White House has thrown down the gauntlet on the New Start Treaty, demanding a vote before the lame-duck session ends.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Capitol Hill yesterday to make the case for a vote.  Vice President Joe Biden has organized a senior-level pow-wow at the White House today that will include not just administration heavyweights like Secretary Clinton and Senate powers like John Kerry but also a list of eminence grises from past administrations, Democratic and Republican alike.  President Obama is expected to drop by before he heads off to Lisbon for the NATO Summit.

The normally cautious Richard Lugar, ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has thrown his lot in with the administration.  He publicly chewed out his fellow Senate Republicans yesterday, accusing them of ducking the issue.  And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he will make time on the Senate calendar for a vote.

So the battle lines are drawn.  The administration is all in.

Democrats who have longed for Obama to show some feistiness no doubt are pleased that he is channeling Woodrow Wilson, who said in response to Senate opposition to a treaty he had negotiated, “I consent to nothing.  The Senate must take its medicine.”

The problem is votes.  The White House doesn’t have them.  Reaching the magic 67-vote mark requires picking up eight Republican votes today, and nine once Republican Mark Kirk is seated sometime over the next two weeks.  That assumes of course that the Democrats hold together, which may be a courageous assumption.  Republican senators on the fence about the treaty will face pressure from some quarters of their party to vote no, and little pressure to vote yes.

So while the Senate might vote during the lame-duck session, the outcome could be different from what the administration wants.  Just recall the fate of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The lesson is that in a government of co-equal branches the Senate doesn’t have to take the president’s medicine. President Wilson learned that the hard way.  Here’s some historical irony for you.  Tomorrow marks the 91st anniversary of the Senate’s rejection of the Treaty of Versailles.

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