Will a Deal on Taxes Make Way for a Deal on Nukes?

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Drew Angerer / New York Times / Redux

What do tax cuts and nuclear arms have in common? More than you might think. When President Obama compromised with Republicans to extend the George W. Bush tax cuts and expand a number of credits, the real clincher was a surprise adjustment of the estate tax. By accepting a tax of 35% on estates worth more than $5 million--a rate much lower than most Democrats wanted--Obama endorsed a pet plan of Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona.

Kyl also happens to be the main roadblock to one of Obama's top foreign policy priorities: the New START agreement with Russia that would limit both countries' nuclear arsenals. As the GOP's point man against the treaty, Kyl has exasperated Democrats. During a recent trip to Sudan, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry haggled with Kyl over the phone past 3 a.m. Khartoum time. At Kyl's behest, the White House recently added $4 billion to modernize the nation's nuclear complex. But he still hasn't budged. And even though START has won support from prominent conservatives like Condoleezza Rice and George Shultz, many other Republicans are following the Arizonan's lead, leaving in doubt whether the treaty can win the 67 votes needed for Senate ratification (which will become nearly impossible once Democratic ranks shrink in the next Congress).

It may just be a coincidence that Kyl's estate-tax plan clicked at a moment when the White House is desperately seeking START's passage. (A Kyl spokesman insists it "will have no impact" on the Senator's START position, adding that "at no time have the two issues been negotiated together.") And finding time to vote on START in what's left of 2010 won't be easy. Still, Democrats hope that after receiving his estate-tax plan as a gift from Obama, Kyl might help put START in the President's stocking.