Whoa: Republicans now saying privately that they expect START to pass?

I’m honestly surprised. McCain and Graham voted to proceed on the treaty last week but both sounded like they were leaning towards no on ratification over the weekend. That would have left Democrats three votes short (Ron Wyden is being treated for prostate cancer) at a moment when all other major business has been settled and grassroots conservative attention is focused entirely on this. Why, Palin even dropped an op-ed on it at NRO a few days to help nudge START into litmus-test territory. And suddenly, both sides are saying that they think it’s a matter of time. What happened?

Republican senators say privately they expect the Senate to ratify the New START treaty this week, which would hand President Obama his third major victory of the lame-duck session.

GOP senators — including those who plan to vote for the treaty and those who say they’ll oppose it — have told The Hill they expect it to pass easily.

At least seven Republican senators have announced they either will vote to ratify the treaty or are leaning strongly toward doing so. That means Democrats are only two GOP votes shy of ratification…

Senate Democrats are eyeing a pool of at least six Republican senators who could give them the final two votes for ratification.

Judd Gregg and Thad Cochran each voted no on the motion to proceed, but Gregg now says he’s leaning towards yes and Chuck Schumer claims Cochran’s told him he’ll vote yes too. That puts Democrats theoretically at 66, with at least three other Republicans in play who voted no last week: Mark Kirk, Johnny Isakson(!), and even Bob Corker, whom you’ll recall was hinting that the GOP might walk away from START over Reid’s insistence on bringing DADT to the floor. I assume he and Isakson will vote no if Democrats have 67 without them since they’re from red states, but I’m curious to see how Kirk plays it. He’s already banked some “moderate” cred by voting yes on the DADT repeal and he’s an intel officer in the Navy so he can afford to be brave in opposing a measure Democrats claim is key to national security. He doesn’t have to vote yes, in other words, especially since he’s not up again until 2016. Will he anyway? Scott Brown’s in the same boat, more or less, and he made his decision a few hours ago.

Here’s Gibbs at today’s briefing sounding cautiously optimistic. Exit question one: Which was the bigger influence on the GOP, Russian threats that the treaty would collapse if the U.S. tried to change it or an almost united front in favor of START from top diplomats who served in Republican administrations? Exit question two: Between his vocal support for this treaty, his backing of the DREAM Act, and his refusal to yank his earmarks from the omnibus spending bill, does Dick Lugar have a primary death wish? Or is he secretly planning to retire and ready to throw caution to the wind?