Last week Senator Lugar got on C-SPAN and stated that "for the moment, this [New START treaty] is not a crucial situation," implying that a delayed vote wouldn't really make a difference for American intelligence on Russian nukes. But a few weeks ago he told Washington Post reporter Mary Beth Sheridan that a delay in the ratification schedule for New START "is very serious and impacts our national security."
So which is it? As so many experts have pointed out, perhaps the most important selling point on New START is the fact that there haven't been inspectors on the ground in Russian nuclear facilities in 270+ days. Senator Lugar embraced the idea, but now his tune has changed. It's a surprising about-face, even if it's a subtle one. Especially since it's coming from Lugar - the Senate's in-house nuclear disarmament expert and the voice of reason on New START.
Senator Lugar, in the C-SPAN interview, also said that the treaty probably won't get to the floor for debate until after the elections. Although he expects his fellow Republicans to vote with him, it's not clear that his comments did much to convince them to do so. Senator Lugar is downplaying the distinct, and dangerous, possibility that Republicans will use his statements as an exit ramp - an opportunity to move from being mildly disinterested in New START to opposing it.
This also provides political cover for Senators that want to stomp their feet about why they don't like the treaty. Senator Corker's recent op-ed is an example of just that. He tries to defend himself against accusations of holding the treaty hostage in the Senate. He goes on and on about the need for more money for modernization, but fails to mention that the Obama administration has already prepared adequately for modernization and has invested a whopping 80 billion over a ten year period to do just that.
Of course Senator Corker is using the issue of funding to demand 10 billion more in pork for modernization, which is really about shifting the focus away from the New START Treaty itself. The strong bi-partisan consensus in favor of the treaty is no match for Republican resistance to it, so they are doing their best to stall efforts to ratify the treaty prior to the November elections. And Senator Corker's partner in crime in the stalling game, Senator Kyl, is at the same time very concerned about the budget deficit.
Counter to what Lugar says, this is a critical moment. With a committee coming up in less than two weeks, it seems almost certain that there won't be a floor vote on New START until after the election. Letting the treaty hang out to dry during that contentious time won't help, either. Here's to hoping that the Senator Lugar from two weeks ago re-emerges and brings his fellow Senate Republicans with his. Because Senators on the right and the left need to remember what this treaty is about: keeping tabs on Russia's nuclear capabilities. We simply can't do that without New START.