Will the Senate support new nuclear arms reductions?

By John Isaacs, Kingston Reif | June 23, 2009

President Barack Obama has an ambitious agenda on nuclear weapons issues that will take a long time to implement. For example, the earliest the Senate is likely to vote again on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is 2010. Likewise, a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty is at least three years away. Ditto for the president’s goal of safeguarding all vulnerable nuclear weapons and nuclear materials worldwide. And then there is his most ambitious goal of all–a nuclear-weapon-free world, which even he has suggested probably won’t take place in his lifetime. The one major piece of Obama’s arms control agenda that could be completed this year, however, is a follow-on agreement to START.

Momentum–on both sides of the aisle–seems to be in favor of such an agreement, with two influential, bipartisan reports tasked with investigating U.S. nuclear policy strongly supporting new U.S.-Russian arms control negotiations. The first, compiled by a task force led by the Council on Foreign Relations, was released on April 30. Co-chaired by former Defense Secretary William Perry and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, the report “supports efforts to renew legally binding arms control pacts with Russia by seeking follow-on agreements to START and the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty.” Besides Scowcroft, the task force included other high-profile Republicans such as Linton Brooks, former National Nuclear Security Administration administrator, and Franklin Miller, a member of the National Security Council during the second Bush administration.

The second report, issued by the congressionally mandated Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, was released on May 6. Perry also chaired this commission, along with former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger. Chartered by Congress to examine and make recommendations on the long-term strategic posture of the United States, the commission noted, “The moment appears ripe for a renewal of arms control with Russia, and this bodes well for a continued reduction in the nuclear arsenal. The United States and Russia should pursue a step-by-step approach and take a modest first step to ensure that there is a successor to START when it expires at the end of 2009.”

In addition to Schlesinger, Republican commission members included leading nuclear hawks such as John Foster, director emeritus of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Keith Payne, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for forces; Fred Ikle, former director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; and former CIA Director James Woolsey.

To its credit, the Obama administration moved even before these reports were released. To wit, on April 1, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issued a joint statement in which they agreed “to pursue new and verifiable reductions in our strategic offensive arsenals in a step-by-step process, beginning by replacing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with a new, legally binding treaty. We are instructing our negotiators to start talks immediately on this new treaty and to report on results achieved in working out the new agreement by July.”

Already, Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller and Anatoly Antonov, the head of Russia’s Foreign Ministry Department for Security and Disarmament, have held several meetings to discuss and negotiate a new treaty, with more meetings scheduled for later this month. And when Obama and Medvedev meet in early July, they may begin to outline the actual framework of a START follow-on agreement.

Surprisingly, the negotiations also have received support from Republicans currently holding office–not exactly a group known for being in Obama’s corner. For instance, Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been advocating for a new treaty for some time. And two weeks ago, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain endorsed a new treaty on the Senate floor: “As the administration reviews its nuclear weapons posture, it should seek to reduce the size of our nuclear arsenal to the lowest number possible consistent with our security requirements and global commitments. This means a move, as rapidly as possible, to a significantly smaller force.” Plus, since the 1990s, the Senate has displayed overwhelming bipartisan support for nuclear reduction treaties; the START agreement was approved 93-6 in 1992 and the Moscow Treaty, or SORT, was unanimously approved 95-0 in 2003.

The public also is supportive. A Greenberg Quinlan Rosner/Democracy Corps poll taken in May showed strong support for the president’s nuclear weapons policies. Seventy percent of those surveyed agreed with the following statement: “While in Europe, President Obama announced that the United States would pursue new negotiations with Russia to reduce both countries’ nuclear arsenals, a global ban on nuclear testing, and new efforts to stem the proliferation of nuclear materials and weapons.” Only 15 percent of respondents opposed.

So the treaty is a no-brainer, right? It will skate through the Senate with little opposition? Don’t count on it.

Although most Republican senators are holding their fire until they see a final product, some key Republicans already have begun raising concerns. At a June 3 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions and Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter questioned how the START negotiations can be completed before the latest Nuclear Posture Review–a periodic government-wide review of nuclear weapons policy–is completed later this year.

Similarly, Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, speaking before a National Defense University audience on April 21, opined that cutting U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles does nothing to deal with the more pressing threats of terrorism, North Korea, Iran, and the deteriorating situation in Pakistan. A couple of weeks later, before the same group, Sessions also complained about the Obama administration’s focus on a treaty with Russia rather than terrorism. Yet, Sessions more or less has conceded that he can accept a modest reduction from the Moscow Treaty levels of 1,700-2,200 deployed strategic nuclear weapons to perhaps a new ceiling of 1,500.

The same cannot be said for staunch nuclear hawks such as John Bolton, Frank Gaffney, and their ilk. And like it or not, their voices will be heard during the treaty debate–although probably not with enough resonance to convince 34 senators to block treaty ratification.

Still, two other potential hurdles remain. One is completing the treaty in sufficient time for the Senate to consider it before START expires on December 5. (Lugar has warned that the treaty has to be completed and submitted to the Senate by the end of July to provide sufficient time for the Senate to take action before the deadline.) The second is lingering divisions between Senate Republicans and Democrats that arose in early votes on the economic stimulus package and the budget, divisions which may get increasingly bitter with major votes expected in coming months on health-care reform, climate legislation, and Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

While these divisions are unlikely to derail treaty ratification, most arms control experts agree that ratification with more than 67 votes will be necessary to build momentum for more controversial treaties to follow (e.g., the CTBT) that also will need 67 Senate votes.

In short, there are no givens in politics or the Senate. However, portents are excellent for a completed treaty later this year and a Senate vote shortly thereafter. The next acts: negotiations on further reductions in nuclear weapon stockpiles, a vote on the CTBT, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, and movement on the rest of Obama’s extensive arms control agenda. The fate of those measures is still uncertain.

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