For all the bows the president is sure to take for certain ratification of the New START arms treaty in the Senate this week, there is strong evidence another administration figure played the decisive role in securing pivotal Senate votes that put the controversial arms control agreement over the finish line: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Before and after the word came through to the regular White House press briefing yesterday that the ninth Republican vote in the Senate required to ensure ratification of START had been secured, talk was rampant that it was Clinton and not Obama whose calls to senators made possible a much-needed triumph for the administration.
Already there is speculation that the secretary of state — Obama’s leading rival for the Democratic presidential nomination in ’08 — might be put to work on getting votes on other key measures in the next Senate (which will have 47 Republicans rather than the 42 in the current lame-duck session).
As if to highlight the role that the secretary of state has played in the ratification fight, the State Department recently released a list of lawmakers that former New York Sen.Clinton has called to lobby for “aye” votes. In contrast, while the White House confirmed that President Obama personally called senators in the days before the critical two-thirds of the Senate required for ratification were reached on Tuesday, the president’s top spokesman refused to tell reporters which lawmakers he reached out to on START.
“For their reasons,” Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told the White House press corps on Tuesday, “[W]e continue to — I will continue to tell you the president has made calls, but not get into who.”
A colleague then noted that the State Department put out “a list of senators that Secretary Clinton called, but you’re taking a different approach?”
“Indeed,” replied Gibbs, without explanation.
But the issue would not go away.
Another reporter soon asked that, “[in] Secretary Clinton acknowledging who she’s talked to among the senators, and the president — you all [sic] — not willing to release that, are you acknowledging that she might be more popular among Republicans than the president is, and therefore . . . .”
“How so?” interrupted Gibbs.
“Because she’s — because of the list being released,” my colleague pressed, “is it an acknowledgement that maybe [Tennessee’s Republican Sen.] Bob Corker doesn’t want [it] to be known his vote could change depending on whether Obama calls him or not, is my question.”
“I’m having a hard time seeing that connection of that bridge,” said Gibbs.
When my colleague asked how many calls Obama had made to senators sitting on the fence on START, Gibbs replied: “[A] lot.” Asked how many calls, the White House press secretary suddenly changed the subject and apologized to Cheryl Stolberg of the New York Times because the transcript “inexplicably” said he called her “Jill” at the briefing on the day before.
Obviously, the White House does not want to fuel any discussion that Hillary Clinton has more political clout in the Senate than the president. But that talk has clearly started — and is likely to be heard a lot next year.