The Administration has proposed a massive increase in funding for the nuclear weapons complex, increasing the budget for NNSA by 13.4 percent (over what the FY2010 appropriation.)

John Fleck has an excellent write-up of the announcement in the Albuquerque Journal.

The purpose of announcing the massive increases in funding for the nuclear weapons enterprise — stockpile support (25 percent increase), infrastructure (5 percent) and other categories is political — is presented as the right thing to do, which it may be, but it is also intended to find votes in the Senate for ratification of the START Follow-on Treaty and, at a later date, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The budget release follows a major op-ed by Vice President Biden in the Wall Street Journal that makes explicit the link between funding the complex and achieving the agenda laid out in Prague:

Our budget request is just one of several closely related and equally important initiatives giving life to the president’s Prague agenda. Others include completing the New START agreement with Russia, releasing the Nuclear Posture Review on March 1, holding the Nuclear Security Summit in April, and pursuing ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Some of my friends are complaining that by funding the complex first and asking for START (and CTBT) ratification second, the Administration is squandering its only leverage.

I worry about that, too. But I think this is the right approach, given the structure of the Senate and the President’s temperament.

Let’s hold aside, for the moment, the argument that the complex is deteriorating and people are leaving. I suspect that lack of funding isn’t the primary challenge facing the labs nor is more money a sufficient remedy for their woes. But more money is probably a necessary element of a comprehensive strategy to fix the labs. This is, all things considered, probably the correct policy decision.

The Politics of Treaty Ratification

But is it good politics? Barack Obama said he preferred to be a great one term president, rather than a mediocre two-term President. No one believe him of course, because the two are often correlated — the ability to achieve policy successes depends in large part on the same political acumen that aids reelection.

There are basically two approaches to getting to 67 votes in the United States Senate to ratify an arms control treaty. One option is to peel off just enough Republican Senators, convincing them to break ranks with their party in exchange for specific benefits or out of fear of losing reelection. The other is to secure the support of both the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders, so that the issue does not become partisan at all.

I hate to point this out, but only one of these two strategies has ever worked for an arms control treaty (at least as far as I can tell.) Securing the support of the opposition leadership is essential to avoiding a straight party-line vote that is more about partisanship than the national interest. This is why Michael Krepon, who edited the wonderful Politics of Treaty Ratification, blogged that “ratification usually happens by comfortable majorities or not at all.” John Isaacs made this point, as well.

This is the context in which to understand Senator Jon Kyl’s opposition to the various arms control treaties: He is Minority Whip and aspires to be the leading Republican voice on security issues. Perhaps, like another aspiring whip, he imagines even greater offices are within his grasp. His strategy to achieve these things is to make votes on arms control treaties a test of Senator’s Republican bona fides.

To worry that Senator Kyl might “pocket” this concession and ask for ever more rather misses the point. Of course, he’s going to do that (and more)! He’s not an idiot, after all. But nor is Senator Kyl the proper object of a ratification strategy — or at least he shouldn’t be.

The practical reality is that the Administration has to bring a majority of the Republican caucus along to support START and CTBT — even if fewer votes are technically required. If you look at the dozen of so candidates the Administration might hope to “peel off” — such as John McCain or Richard Lugar — few of them will be eager about the prospect of crossing over on a party line vote. The key to ratification has always been Mitch McConnell — and will be as long as he is Senate Minority Leader.

Depoliticizing START and CTBT

Which brings us to the budget roll-out. I don’t have any special insight into how Vice President Biden — who is spear-heading ratification process for START and CTBT — is going about cutting a deal. But I seem to recall he is familiar with the Senate.

If the strategy is to avoid, to the greatest extent possible, politicizing either treaty, starving the nuclear weapons complex probably won’t create leverage with the Senate Minority Leader and might, in fact, backfire. If you give Republicans a choice between a well-funded nuclear weapons complex and a talking point to conflate the Prague agenda with unilateral disarmament — which is a favorite claim by Senator Kyl — most will understandably choose the latter. “Unilateral disarmament” is the “death panel” of the nuclear weapons debate. The goal, then, is to take away Kyl’s talking points, rather than to horse-trade with Senators. (That comes later.)

Frankly, this is probably the only strategy an Obama Administration would undertake. It is difficult to imagine this President taking the bare-knuckled approach that we might have gotten from, say, Lyndon Johnson. However much juice his presidency has left — and that is the popular parlor question of the moment, for people in Georgetown who can afford parlors — for better or for worse, Barack Obama has his own style.

I cannot, for example, imagine Obama, as LBJ did, holding a meeting in the buff at the White House swimming pool or dictating to poor Doris Kearns from the commode. For better, or for worse.

So, we are left with the strategy of attempting to depoliticize the treaties, recognizing that there will be some additional horse-trading at a later date. It might not always succeed, but it is probably the only strategy that will.