A strategy for achieving Senate approval of the CTBT

By John Isaacs | April 15, 2009

On April 5, speaking in Prague, President Barack Obama delivered his first public commitment to seek the Senate’s advice and consent for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. He told his audience: “To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [CTBT].” He added, “After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned.”

The next day, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told attendees at the Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference that Vice President Joseph Biden had been designated to lead the administration’s campaign to win Senate approval of the CTBT. A bit of context: Biden was an important member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1999 when the Senate last considered the treaty. He also was a key figure in winning approval of another controversial treaty–the Chemical Weapons Convention. (More about that later.) Biden has been charged with conducting a review of key issues related to the CTBT, including verification of nuclear tests and ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile in the absence of conducting such tests.

Together, these events provided two critical signals that legions of CTBT supporters have been waiting for–a clear commitment to the CTBT from the president and a point person in the administration to take charge of the campaign.

In 1999, the Senate considered the treaty and sent it down to ignominious defeat. Needing 67 votes to be approved, the treaty achieved only 48, with 51 senators voting “no”–along partisan lines as Republicans were mostly united in their opposition to the treaty. While today there is renewed momentum for the CTBT, no one should plan a victory celebration yet. The treaty still faces enormous political hurdles–especially in terms of scoring 67 Senate votes, the constitutionally mandated two-thirds majority needed for the Senate to give its advice and consent to a major treaty.

At present, there are 56 Democratic senators plus two independents who caucus with the Democrats. All 58 are likely to vote “aye” on the treaty. So too will Al Franken of Minnesota, who appears ever closer to claiming the second Minnesota Senate seat after a long court challenge and extremely tight November 2008 election. With Franken aboard, the total projected Senate votes for the treaty are 59. One of the three Republican senators who supported the treaty in 1999, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter is expected to take the same position in a new vote.

That brings the number of treaty supporters to 60 if a new vote were held today. But getting from 60 probable votes to 67 sure votes is like forging a raging river at the finish line of a 10-mile hike.

As I wrote in an earlier piece, Republicans in Congress have been unified in their opposition to the bulk of Obama’s agenda. Only three Senate Republicans voted for the economic stimulus package, and that was three more than voted for the annual budget resolution. It will be tricky to break this pattern of Republican unity against the Obama administration’s goals.

The anti-treaty forces are led by two key Republican senators: John Kyl of Arizona and Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Both were in the Senate in 1999; both voted against the CTBT at that time, with Kyl leading the anti-treaty forces; both have made it clear that they remain adamantly opposed to the treaty; and both are in key positions in 2009–Kyl as Republican whip and Sessions as the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee.

Two years ago, Sessions spoke before a National Defense University Foundation audience and objected to a nonbinding provision written into the annual defense authorization bill that endorsed Senate reconsideration of the CTBT. He complained, “That was a blast from the past. . . . I don’t see CTBT as something we need to pass right now.” Kyl has been even more adamant: “It has been nine years since the CTBT was the subject of any deliberation by the Senate, which ultimately concluded that its ratification was not in the nation’s interests. There were numerous objections that proved determinative then and remain true today.” In addition, he had organized a letter signed by 41 Republican senators objecting to the provision that had angered Sessions as well. Kyl explained, “My colleagues recognize as I do that since the reasons for the rejection of this treaty in 1999 have not changed, neither should the Senate’s position.”

While a number of those senators no longer serve in public office, the 41 senators on the list obviously are greater than the 34 senators needed to defeat the CTBT in a new vote. So to be successful, Obama and Biden must design a well-coordinated and aggressive campaign. They will be joined by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, who promises to use his key position to educate the Senate.

Test ban advocates outside of the government plan to conduct an educational and lobbying campaign in the states of the usual suspects–moderate conservatives who eventually might vote for the CTBT. This list includes Arizona (John McCain), Indiana (Richard Lugar), Maine (Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe), and Ohio (George Voinovich).

But they should be forewarned: It will be difficult to pick off Republican votes one by one. Senators studiously avoid taking positions if an issue isn’t expected to reach the Senate floor for many months, or even years. And any GOP member who might think of voting for the test ban treaty will face strong party pressure to stay neutral or outright defiant. Thus, the easiest way out for any senator who might be “persuadable” is to stay quiet at the moment.

That said, there is a hopeful precedent in the Senate’s deliberation on the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which President George H. W. Bush signed shortly before he left office in 1993. (The CWC prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons throughout the world.) President Clinton submitted the CWC to the Senate for its advice and consent to ratification on November 23, 1993–after which, the treaty sat dormant because Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, an adamant CWC opponent, refused to allow the treaty out of his committee for a Senate floor vote.

The Clinton administration tried again in 1995. But Helms stalled yet more. And after that point, any vote had to await the outcome of the 1996 presidential election. Eventually, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott went to Helms and told him that with the CWC slated to enter into force on April 29, 1997, Helms would have to negotiate an agreement with Biden to produce a vote on the treaty.

Weeks of arduous negotiations between Helms and Biden ensued. Finally, Helms relented and allowed the treaty out of his committee, but not before exacting a steep price. This price included:

  • A restructuring of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus that led to the merger of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency into the State Department;
  • adding 28 “understandings” to the resolution of ratification–provisions that would guide U.S. adherence to the treaty but not force its renegotiation with other countries;
  • permitting individual Senate votes on five additional Helms’ amendments that, if adopted, would have killed the treaty;
  • bringing to the Senate for approval amendments negotiated with Russia to two other treaties (the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty);
  • and allowing Kyl to bring up a bill that would enact as U.S. law some provisions of the CWC, a measure that was offered to provide political cover for Republicans who wanted to vote “no.”

Nonetheless, on April 24, 1997, the Senate gave its advice and consent to passage of the CWC on a 74-26 vote, with a majority of Republicans voting “aye” and Helms voting “no.”

Today, Biden again will be in a pivotal position to win approval of a controversial treaty. This time, to secure enough votes for passage of the CTBT, he will need to sit down and work out an arrangement with Kyl and Sessions, House Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and other key Republicans such as McCain and Lugar. What compromises and agreements will be necessary are anybody’s guess. But the key will likely not be facts or persuasive arguments, but rather a painstakingly and carefully negotiated deal.

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