Obama Gamble Pays Off With Approval of Arms Pact

The final approval of a new arms control treaty with Russia may have been a foregone conclusion by the time senators stepped onto the floor on Wednesday. But that was not the way it looked one afternoon last month when White House officials rushed to the Oval Office to tell President Obama that his treaty might be dead.The president and his team had built their entire strategy for obtaining approval of the treaty on winning over a single Republican senator deputized by his caucus to negotiate an accord — and that Republican, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, had just shocked the White House by pulling the plug on a deal for the year.

Some aides counseled Mr. Obama to stand down. Losing a treaty vote, as one put it, would be “a huge loss.” But Mr. Obama decided that afternoon to make one of the biggest gambles of his presidency and demand that the Senate approve the treaty by the year’s end. “We’ve just got to go ahead,” he told aides, who recounted the conversation on Wednesday.

Along the way, he had to confront his own reluctant party leadership and circumvent the other party’s leadership. He mounted a five-week campaign that married public pressure and private suasion. He enlisted the likes of Henry A. Kissinger, asked Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to help and sent a team of officials to set up a war room of sorts on Capitol Hill. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. had at least 50 meetings or phone calls with senators.

When a wavering Republican senator told Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that the president needed to address concerns about missile defense, the senator quickly received a letter from Mr. Obama reaffirming his commitment to develop the system.

Other senators who were worried about the condition of the nation’s nuclear stockpile received a letter from the president vowing to stick by a 10-year, $85 billion modernization plan.

Even in the final 10 days, the effort appeared in danger of collapsing. The insistence of Democrats on passing unrelated legislation allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military upset the Republican conference and may have cost the White House five or more votes on the arms treaty. Administration officials worried last week that they did not have the required two-thirds majority in the Senate, and as late as Sunday, the president’s aides wondered whether to call off the vote.

In the end, the gamble paid off on Wednesday with a 71-to-26 vote in the Senate to approve the treaty, called New Start, with Russia, culminating what turned out to be the biggest battle over arms control in Washington in more than a decade.

No Russian-American arms treaty submitted for a Senate vote ever squeaked through by a smaller margin. But for a president seeking his way after a crushing midterm election, it was welcome validation that he could still win a battle.

“The president made a gutsy decision that he was willing to lose it, and that was a gutsy decision,” said Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who was Mr. Obama’s chief ally in the Senate. “Everybody said it wasn’t going to happen. Even colleagues on our side said it wasn’t going to happen.”

The treaty took on such importance to Mr. Obama because he had invested so much in it.

While it will not reduce nuclear weapons as much as previous treaties have, he has made it the centerpiece of his foreign policy — “the Jenga piece,” as one aide puts it, critical to a variety of priorities, including a better relationship with Russia, international solidarity against Iran’s uranium enrichment program and the president’s larger vision of eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

The challenge of Senate approval always played into the administration’s thinking, even while the treaty was being negotiated with the Russians. At several pivotal moments, American officials like Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Under Secretary of State Ellen O. Tauscher; Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller; and Michael McFaul, the president’s Russia adviser, used the need to win Senate approval to leverage Russian negotiators into making concessions.

Even before Mr. Obama and President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia signed the treaty in April, the administration had tried to woo Mr. Kyl, the No. 2 Republican and his party’s leading conservative voice on arms control. The White House strategy was to meet Mr. Kyl’s concerns on modernizing the nuclear complex, knowing that if he embraced the treaty, it would sail to approval.

Mr. Obama was coming under pressure from multiple sides as the end of the year neared. During a meeting in Japan in mid-November, Mr. Medvedev pressed Mr. Obama on the treaty. “Are you going to get Start done?” the Russian president asked, according to an administration official, who like others interviewed insisted on anonymity to share private moments.

Soon after Mr. Obama returned, his negotiations with Mr. Kyl suddenly disintegrated. On Nov. 16, the senator issued a statement saying he did not think there was enough time to deal with the issues surrounding New Start before the end of the year. That would mean waiting until the new Senate took office with five more Republicans.

White House officials learned about Mr. Kyl’s statement shortly after noon when a reporter sent it by e-mail. They instantly realized the peril. Mr. Biden; Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser; his deputies Denis McDonough and Ben Rhodes; and the press secretary, Robert Gibbs, informed Mr. Obama.

“There were people here who thought that was it, we were going to call it a day,” recalled one White House official. There was no Plan B. But Mr. Obama, who often disappoints supporters by not responding to Republicans more aggressively, decided this was a moment to fight. “He decided that he would settle on nothing short of full Senate ratification,” said another official.

Starting in that meeting, they laid out a strategy. Mr. Biden was supposed to meet two days later with several Republican luminaries. Instead, Mr. Obama would host the meeting and make a public pitch for the treaty. The White House ripped up plans for the weekly radio and Internet address to make it about New Start. Then Mr. Obama flew to Lisbon for a NATO meeting, where he encouraged European leaders to speak out for the treaty.  – Nytimes