WASHINGTON — Just two weeks after an election that left him struggling to find his way forward, President Barack Obama has decided to confront Senate Republicans in a make-or-break battle over arms control that could be an early test of his mettle heading into the final two years of his term.
Obama is pushing for a vote on a signature issue despite long odds, daring Republicans to block an arms-control treaty at the risk of disrupting relations with Russia and the international coalition that opposes Iran’s nuclear program. If he succeeds, Obama will demonstrate strength following the midterm election debacle. If he fails, he will reinforce the perception at home and abroad that his presidency has been weakened.
“It’s really high stakes,” said Geoffrey Kemp, a former national security aide to President Ronald Reagan and a scholar at the Nixon Center, a research group in Washington. “I would say it’s the biggest gamble he’s taken so far, certainly on foreign policy.”
After months of quiet negotiations blew up this week, Obama on Thursday escalated ratification of the agreement, the so-called New Start treaty, into a public showdown, enlisting former Republican officials and assigning Vice President Joe Biden to work on it “day and night.” An allied group, the American Values Network, kicked off a television and e-mail campaign.
“It is a national security imperative that the United States ratify the New Start treaty this year,” said Obama, flanked by Henry A. Kissinger, James A. Baker III and Brent Scowcroft, all of whom served Republican presidents. “There is no higher national security priority for the lame-duck session of Congress.”
Obama has no clear path to approval of the treaty without Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the lead Republican negotiator, who declared this week that there was no time to reach an agreement this year on a nuclear modernization program that he wanted as the price for ratification.
The White House has only one Republican supporter, Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana. A survey of 14 other Senate Republicans who were considered possible supporters found none who were willing to publicly back the treaty. Ten of them said they were undecided or were waiting for the same assurances as Kyl. Four did not respond, suggesting that approval may depend on changing Kyl’s mind.
Among those who agreed with Kyl that the issue should wait until next year was Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, one of three Republicans to vote for the treaty in committee in September.