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A great START for Christmas

By John P. Avlon, CNN Contributor
  • Sen. Jim DeMint said START debate could mar observance of Christmas
  • John Avlon says passage of treaty would affirm Christmas spirit of peace
  • He says it has broad support from Republican and Democratic experts on national security
  • Avlon: Only obstacle is partisan politics, a dangerous way to deal with nuclear weapons

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."

New York (CNN) -- Last week, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint argued that the Senate should not approve the new START agreement with Russia because it might force senators to work over Christmas, thus showing insensitivity to the Christian faithful.

But I can't think of better Congressional business than a nuclear arms control treaty to mark the birthday of the Prince of Peace.

This lame duck Congress has shown it can fly, passing a broad-based tax cut compromise by a wide margin despite opposition from the far right and far left. In an even more historically significant move, eight Republican senators joined Democrats to end the ban on gays and lesbians serving opening in the military, known as "don't ask, don't tell." It is a reminder that the divided government that we'll see next year does not need to mean gridlock. It's also a reminder of the strength of the political center.

The next great test is the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START. While several powerful conservative senators have declared their opposition, this treaty has broad-based support.

Consider this: Every living Republican secretary of state strongly backs the ratification of this treaty. Every living Republican national security adviser does as well. Formerly warring voices within the Republican Party such as President George H. W. Bush and his 1992 primary challenger Pat Buchanan both agree that it should be passed now. Current and former top military brass are in broad agreement that START must be signed.

President Obama has made it clear that the passage of START is his priority for the remaining days of this Congress. There is little obvious domestic political benefit for Obama in front-loading this treaty. There is, however, profound practical benefit. With nuclear arms verification and reduction, we would be living in a safer world.

Both the Bush administration and the Obama administration have spoken at length about the nightmare scenario of nuclear material falling into the hands of a rogue nation or terrorist organization. Newly strained tensions with North Korea further highlight the need to try to put this genie back in the bottle. Iran's destabilizing nuclear ambitions also hover over our collective shoulder.

Delaying or denying this treaty would only ensure a prolonged period with no investigations of Russia's massive nuclear stockpile. Likewise, arguments that this treaty is being "shoved" through the Senate don't hold water -- President Obama signed the treaty over eight months ago, there have been over a dozen delays requested by Republicans and Senate debate over START already exceeds the time spent debating its two predecessor treaties.

Graham irked by START process
WH optimistic on START ratification
Expert: Generation lost if treaty dies
We cannot afford to play partisan politics with nuclear weapons.
--John P. Avlon

We cannot afford to play partisan politics with nuclear weapons. And while President Obama has admitted his dream of reducing nuclear weapons around the world, this was also a dream held by Ronald Reagan, reaffirmed by his Secretary of State George Shultz when I interviewed him this summer for The Daily Beast about the prospects for passing START.

"President Obama has picked up on the notion that we can seek a world free of nuclear weapons, and that was very strongly felt by President Reagan," Shultz said.

"How do you do that? You take a series of steps. First of all, since most nuclear weapons that exist are in the hands of Russia and the United States, you've got to start there."

And since the Reagan-era START agreement expired last December, "it's important to get it replaced with a treaty that has verification permissions in it and continuous investigations," Shultz said.

At the time, Shultz described the treaty's broad outlines as containing "relatively modest reductions" but concluded, "I think it's a constructive step."

On Monday Bush 41 National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft described remaining GOP opposition from party leaders like Sens. Mitch McConnell and John Kyl as "baffling."

"It doesn't tie our hands on missile defense ... as the president has already demonstrated. We're moving ahead on missile defense on Europe," Scowcroft told ABC News. "To play politics with what is in the fundamental national interest is pretty scary stuff."

Most Americans understand the virtue of peace through strength. The Obama administration has increased military budgets to date and doubled down on Afghanistan. This is not a treaty negotiated from a position of weakness. Given Putin's track record, we must "trust, but verify" -- to use a phrase Reagan made famous.

Because treaties require two-thirds of the votes in the Senate for approval, the bar for the passage of START is high, yet close observers remain cautiously optimistic about the chances for passage this year.

To date, five Republicans have announced their intention to support the treaty: Indiana's Richard Lugar, Massachusetts's Scott Brown and Tennessee's Bob Corker along with Maine's two centrist stalwarts Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

For those of you vote-counting at home, there is also some hope that the retiring Republican Sens. George Voinovich, Bob Bennett and Judd Gregg will sign on. And yesterday, Sen. McCain offered an amendment which might help address most remaining Republican concerns without renegotiations with the Russians.

Here is what's clear: This arms treaty would reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons in existence and aid the cause of non-proliferation. It already has achieved broad support from Democrats and Republicans with National Security and State Department experience, including Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Military leaders strongly support the treaty's ratification as well.

There are practical reasons rooted in responsible governance to move forward with the new START. Unfortunately, the most obvious reasons for opposition are rooted in partisan politics - wanting to delay the vote in order to deny the Obama administration a post-election victory. This is as shortsighted as it is dangerous.

Christmas time is precisely the right time for the Senate to move forward with an arms control treaty which would promote the cause of peace in a troubled world.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John P. Avlon.