James Jay Carafano: A new START for the DeMint treatment on national security

Jim DeMint, R-SC, has a reputation for caring about national security more than just about anyone else in the Senate.  But in 2007, he drew howls from veterans, voting against a Veterans Affairs bill.

The backstory here is key.  As DeMint tells it, the Veterans Administration wanted to downsize an under-utilized  hospital in Los Angeles, and plan to sell some adjacent parkland, plowing the proceeds, an estimated $5 billion, back into the VA budget.

“But,” DeMint recalls, “Hollywood friends of the two California Senators wanted to keep the area as a park, so the bill included an ‘earmark’ to prohibit the VA from selling the property.”

That’s why DeMint cast a principled but unpopular “nay”: to make the point that, it is not okay to pass up billions for veterans care in favor of preserving a public playground for the “beautiful people.”

DeMint doesn’t mind playing the maverick when national security is on the line.

He did it again earlier this month, when Foreign Relations Committee was set to pass the New START nuclear agreement with Russia on to the full Senate. Until then, most critics of the treaty contented themselves by simply saying it needed to be studied closely. The didn’t want to draw the fire of the “no-nukes” crowd. 

Not DeMint. “The nuclear-weapons treaty President Obama has negotiated with the Russians may help him make America’s erstwhile Cold War adversary happy,” he declared, “but it won’t help protect us from the rogue nations that threaten the United States today.”  He proceeded to offer some hard-hitting amendments to try fix the treaty’s flaws.

The amendments failed, and the committee sent New START to the full Senate.  But DeMint clearly intends to press his point.

That Friday he spoke at the Value Voters Summit, a mammoth conservative convention mounted in Washington, D.C., by the Family Research Council Action. The summit focuses on social and fiscal issues, and DeMint’s did hit on those issues.

But he also made a point of questioning the New START and plugging missile defense–something many analysts (including me!) fear might have to be curtailed because of language in the treaty.

Two days later, DeMint spoke out again in the opinion pages of The Washington Post. “Obama’s honeymoon is over,” he wrote. “None of his so-called legislative achievements lives up to its label.” Nor, he noted, does New START.

DeMint appears determined to do his best to keep the treaty from being added to the Administration’s “achievement” list.  But he has work cut out for him.

Three of his fellow Republicans voted for the treaty in the committee mark-up.  The President needs to pick up only a handful more votes from across the aisle to reach the 67-vote threshold required for passage.

Some time between now and the end of post-election “lame duck” session, the Administration hopes to bring the treaty to the Senate floor for a final approval. It will be interesting to watch between now and then how much of a national security maverick DeMint plans to make of himself, and if he’ll try to force more debate.

Perhaps the Senator will press the Administration to turn over the treaty’s negotiating record—something it has so far refused to do. Those records would reveal what, if any, side-deals were cut over missile defense to get Moscow’s sign-off on the treaty. 

That’s critical information, something  the full Senate needs before it can provide informed “advice and consent” regarding New START.

James Jay Carafano is senior research fellow for national security and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation.

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