Senate sources tell ABC News that it's unclear if the Senate has the votes to pass the nuclear disarmament treaty that President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed just hours ago.
The ambiguity confirms what has seemed a constant refrain of concern from the White House about whether the votes are there. Just moments ago, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs tweeted from Prague: "DC's next test – last 3 Senate votes on arms reduction treaties: INF 93-5 ('88), START I 93-6 ('92), & SORT 95-0 ('03) = bipartisan test."
Or, as he put it to reporters on Air Force One on the flight to the Czech Republic, "if you look back at previous nuclear reduction treaties in the late ‘80s, the early ‘90s, and even as late at 2003, these are documents that enjoy vast bipartisan majorities — votes in the ‘90s. We are hopeful that reducing the threat of nuclear weapons remains a priority for both parties."
(The White House denies that these constant reminders are a sign of "concern," but rather are a reminder of the traditionally bipartisan way these treaties are handled.)
Senate Republican leadership sources say Senate Republican leaders don't have a firm position because the leadership hasn't been consulted in any substantive way about the treaty by the Obama administration beyond some minor discussions.
Any treaty negotiated by the executive branch needs to pass the Senate by a two-thirds vote, as required by Article II, section 2 of the Constitution. Fifty-nine Senators caucus with the Democratic party, so assuming all of them support ratification, at least eight Republicans will need to join them to reach 67 votes.
Senate Democratic leadership sources suggest Republicans are waiting to see what the reaction is to the treaty from the conservative base of the party. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is said to be hopeful that in the end the votes will be there, when a vote comes up in several months after several committee hearings.
Previous disarmament treaties did enjoy vast bipartisan support, as Gibbs noted, and this treaty has been endorsed by former Republican Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger.
The views of the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., will carry some weight among his fellow Republicans. His view in general is said to be "favorable," a Lugar aide tells ABC News, but he needs to do "due diligence" and go through the process of reading the treaty and its annexes, which will take some time.
"The process we go through in the committee will determine whether there's sufficient Republican support for it," the Lugar aide said. "Normally arms control treaties take many months to go through the ratification process, sometimes it can take a year or two."
The Lugar aide acknowledged the "politics of this year" — what he described as a "particularly explosive election year" — might complicate the process, but ultimately Lugar hopes the votes will be there.
The general posture of Senate Republicans today hasn't seemed particularly embracing.
This morning an aide to Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., sent out an email to reporters saying: "Just a reminder re: today’s signing of START in Prague. I’ve attached two letters that were sent to the President: the first sent by a bipartisan group of 41 Senators in December, as well as a second letter sent last month by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl, reminding the President that he is legally required to submit to Congress a detailed plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear deterrent prior to the Senate considering START."
The latter letter from McConnell and Kyl to President Obama, sent on March 15, noted the two senators' concern about comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said the treaty linked offensive weapons and missile defense "[i]n a legally binding form."
Wrote the Republican Senators: "As you know, it is highly unlikely that the Senate would ratify a treaty that includes such a linkage, including a treaty that includes unilateral declarations that the Russian Federation could use as leverage against you or your successors when U.S. missile defense decisions are made."
The McConnell/Kyl letter to the president noted that a December 15 letter to the President from 41 senators reminded him that section 1251 of last year's defense authorization act "required that the Administration submit a 10 year plan for the modernization of the U.S. nuclear deterrent at the same time it submits the follow-on to the 1991 START Agreement to the Senate for its advice and consent."
McConnell said that "the Obama administration will need to meet three requirements if it expects favorable consideration of the START follow on treaty. The Senate will assess whether or not the agreement is verifiable, whether it reduces our Nation’s ability to defend itself and our allies from the threat of nuclear armed missiles, and whether or not this administration is committed to preserving our own nuclear triad."
On the flight to Prague, deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said that some senators had raised concerns about missile defense and the stockpile management, and that "the treaty places no constraints on the development of our missile defense in Europe. And similarly we’ve made significant investments in the stockpile that we’re very confident that we can actually strengthen the infrastructure of the stockpile and have a reliable nuclear deterrent with these reductions in deployed weapons and launchers."
Rhodes said the White House was "confident that based upon our consultations with the Senate throughout this process that the final product of this treaty is very much in line with some of the issues that were expressed just by senators."
Both Gibbs and Reid's office signaled that a vote on the treaty was not expected before August.