Leading Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on Sunday's "Face the Nation" that he will vote against the new START Treaty, the arms reduction pact between the United States and Russia that is currently President Barack Obama's top foreign relations priority.
Graham had been considered one of the GOP senators likely to support ratifying the treaty. The Washington Post had reported earlier this month that Graham would allow a vote on START if the Democrats moved fast to extend the Bush era tax cuts, and he had voted to start debating the treaty, which was interpreted as a sign that he could support final ratification.
But sounding vexed during the show, Graham seemed not only chafed by the Senate voting down a Republican effort to amend the preamble of the treaty; he also linked the START treaty to his resentment over how the current lame-duck session of Congress has turned out.
Graham exclaimed how hard it was to pass a bipartisan compromise over extending the Bush era tax cuts, and expressed his disappointment over repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy banning openly gay service members.
"If you want to have a chance of passing START, you better start over and do it in the next Congress, because this lame duck has been poisoned," Graham told CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer.
"The last two weeks have been an absolutely excruciating exercise. 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' a controversial topic - some say the civil rights issue of our generation, others say battlefield effectiveness - was passed in the lame-duck session without one amendment being offered," Graham said.
Graham complained of other parts of the legislative agenda of the Senate Majority and outgoing House Majority: "The DREAM Act, we've had two votes on the DREAM Act. Controversial immigration, there was no efforts to find a common ground there, passed without the ability to amend, to try to make Republicans look bad with Hispanics.
"We tried to fund the government by clean [continuing budget resolution bill] but we took a $1.2 trillion omnibus bill with 6,000 earmarks and it failed yesterday. We still haven't funded the government. We haven't had a serious debate on START. We've been fighting a multiple front war to try to do every special interest group's bidding in the lame-duck session.
That's not a way to ratify a treaty that has importance to the country," Graham said.
The New York Times reported Friday that the Republicans have tied the fate of the New START treaty to the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." "Vexed and cornered, Republican opponents of the advancing effort to allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military pulled out a final card Friday, suggesting that the future of an arms treaty with Russia was endangered by Democratic efforts to repeal "Don't Ask Don't Tell" at the end of the lame-duck session," the article said.
Agence France Presse also reported that the treaty may be doomed because of the repeal of DADT.
Upon hearing Graham's opposition announcement, Schieffer questioned Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan on whether the treaty was doomed. "A lot of people thought that Sen. Graham might be one of the Republicans who decided in the end to vote for this. Do you think he's right? Do you think the votes are not there now?" Schieffer asked. [Two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 votes, are necessary to ratify the treaty.]
If Levin was perturbed, he hid it. "We hope the votes are there, including votes of many Republicans," he said. "The most important thing here is that our top military leadership strongly supports the START treaty."
He also disputed Graham's contention that the Senate has not adequately debated the new START pact. "Previous treaties like START treaties have not had longer debates than the two weeks which we've devoted to this treaty," he told Schieffer. "This is not an unusually small length of time. It's been in front of the Foreign Relations Committee for months. We've had, I don't know how many hundreds of questions which have been fully answered. So this has been on the Senate calendar. People can study this and if there're serious amendments that are being offered, fine, we can dispose them.
"We've got many, many days between now and the end of the year. It's an important treaty and it should not be side-tracked," he said.
"But is it going to damage national security by not passing it now?" asked Schieffer.
"It'll damage national security, [and] not just because I say so," Levin said. "I may be chairman of the Armed Services Committee but my view is not nearly as important as every single former Secretary of State, every single National Security Advisor, Republican and Democratic, our current military leadership say it is essential to national security that we pass the START treaty."
The Senate on Saturday voted down an amendment by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to change what Graham called "controversial language" in the preamble so that there is an assurance Russia will not back out from the treaty if the U.S. sets up a missile defense system.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., said the changes would just slow down the approval process by months, and that the preamble is not a binding part of the treaty.
"To try to create this kind of a conflict where none exists, not only did none exist in reality but none exists in the minds and assessments of our commanders who run our missile defense system … it seems to me is a straw man argument," Levin said. "There is no restrictions, no limitations whatsoever on missile defense."
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., last weekend accused the GOP of playing games with politically motivated opposition to the START treaty. "Lindsey Graham is a responsible senator who doesn't play these games," she said. "But there is some gameplaying going on with the START treaty, and it's all about politics and trying to damage the President of the United States."
Graham contended that the U.S. would be jeopardized if the current treaty were adopted.
"I think what damages our national security is to sign a treaty where the parties have a different view of what you mean," he said. "The Russian foreign minister said if we build up our strategic missile defense systems in quality or in numbers, that they will consider that a breach of the treaty. I'm going to write a letter to the Russians and ask them specifically, does the preamble language that Senator McCain tried to remove, do you consider that a limitation on the United States' ability to develop four stages of strategic missile defense - because we're threatened by Iran, we're threatened by North Korea.
"What good is it to sign a treaty and try to defend yourself, and the party on the other side withdraws?" Graham asked. "You want to create chaos in the word? Sign a treaty where everybody thinks the world is safer, and down the road they withdraw because we intend to do something they don't want us to do.
"Maybe next year we can straighten things out and have a chance to do it," Graham concluded.