START follow-on: The Senate calculus

By John Isaacs | March 29, 2010

At long last, the United States and Russia are on the verge of signing a new treaty that reduces the countries’ nuclear arsenals. The treaty, a follow-on to the landmark 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), has been 95 percent complete for months, at least according to many U.S. and Russian officials, but disagreements over missile defense and verification procedures delayed the process. The result of these difficult negotiations will now face what could be equally tortuous consideration by the U.S. Senate.

It is a Senate bitterly divided between Democrats and Republicans, where comity is disappearing and bipartisan lawmaking largely has been replaced by the majority Democrats trying to build a legislative record for the 2010 and 2012 elections and the minority Republicans determined to prevent any major legislation from passing. Making matters worse, the recent yearlong battle to pass health-care reform has left tempers rawer than ever.

What’s next? After the treaty is signed in early April, the Obama administration will need 4-6 weeks to complete its associated paperwork and annexes, which largely deal with verification procedures, and an article-by-article analysis of the agreement.

The first step in the legislative procedure is for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to consider the treaty. It plans to start hearings on the topic sometime between Easter and Memorial Day. Eventually, it will propose what’s called a “resolution of ratification”–the document that the Senate actually votes on. The committee can add to the resolution of ratification conditions, reservations, understandings, and declarations on subjects related to the treaty, such as missile defense, nuclear weapons spending, and future arms control negotiations with the Russians. The Armed Services and Intelligence Committees might also decide to hold hearings on START follow-on, but only the Foreign Relations Committee will vote on approving the resolution of ratification.

Next, the full Senate considers the treaty. Most of the debate is likely to revolve around a new set of Republican conditions, reservations, understandings, and declarations. As with most legislation on the Senate floor, the procedures for the full Senate to consider the treaty will be worked out by Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

While the Foreign Relations Committee may move expeditiously, the full Senate could drag its feet. A lot depends on whether Republican skeptics want to hold up the treaty or let it go through. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was approved only nine weeks after its signing, but other treaties have taken many months. To wit, the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibited the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons, was completed in 1993 but not approved by the Senate until 1997, in major part because of opposition from then Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms.

Will the new START agreement be approved? There are both positive and negative signs on this count. On the plus side:

  • Many Republican officials and politicians have endorsed additional nuclear weapons reductions–including all six very conservative Republicans who served on the congressionally appointed nuclear posture commission led by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger. Further, three key Republican senators have publicly supported START follow-on in principle: ranking Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Richard Lugar, ranking Armed Services Committee member John McCain, and Foreign Relations Committee member Bob Corker. I have personally visited about another 20 or so Senate Republicans, and none of them have opposed the treaty explicitly, although many of them raised concerns about missile defense and the health of the nuclear stockpile.
  • Previous nuclear weapon treaties have secured overwhelming bipartisan support. For instance, the Senate approved President George W. Bush’s Moscow Treaty 95-0 in 2003 and President George H. W. Bush’s START agreement 93-6 in 1992.
  • A bipartisan group of moderate and conservative senators, including Arizona Republican Jon Kyl, Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, Connecticut Independent Joseph Lieberman, Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, and Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson signed a letter to President Barack Obama in July 2009 that, while objecting to curbs on missile defense, stated, “We support your determination to bring into force a follow-on agreement to START prior to its lapse on December 5th of this year.”

On the negative side:

  • The polarization of the Senate may lead Republicans to block timely consideration of the treaty in order to deny Obama a victory before the 2010 midterm elections.
  • Senate procedures provide multiple opportunities for a single senator to slow, or block, action on the treaty. Additionally, since the treaty won’t be signed until early April, there will be little floor time to a schedule a debate and to vote on it before a Senate recess for the November elections.
  • It is uncertain whether Kyl is using the treaty to shape the debate to promote additional spending on new nuclear weapons and expanded missile defense or whether he will outright oppose the treaty.

What are Kyl’s motives? Instead of focusing on hidden motives, which are impossible to decipher, let’s focus on what we know for certain: Although Kyl doesn’t serve on any of the major national security committees, he is passionate about these issues. As such, he has devoted much time over the past year to writing speeches, letters, and statements focused on START follow-on.

This has made him a key leader on national security within the Republican Party and extremely effective at swaying votes. He is widely credited with almost single-handedly defeating the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1999. In the months leading up to that treaty vote, he went from Republican office to Republican office, usually accompanied by Schlesinger, to convince his colleagues to vote no on CTBT. And they did. Not surprisingly then, during my recent visits to Senate Republican offices, many senators said they would look to Kyl as they determine their votes on START follow-on.

So far, Kyl has been careful to avoid strident opposition to the treaty, but he and his staff have wasted few opportunities to raise the controversial issues surrounding it. In July, he was a key author of a letter to President Obama warning him not to use the START follow-on negotiations to “curtail or abandon” missile defense, particularly the system for Europe proposed by President George W. Bush. Six days later, in a speech elaborating on the letter, he added concerns about Russian tactical nuclear weapons, nuclear challenges from Iran and North Korea, and the nuclear modernization programs of other countries, as well as suggesting that very low U.S. nuclear warhead totals could jeopardize the country’s nuclear triad.

On November 21, 2009, after visiting with the U.S. START follow-on negotiating team in Geneva, he delivered a speech on the Senate floor raising “worrisome” issues about the treaty, including the potential expiration of START verification procedures, a new Russian road mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, and the withdrawal of U.S. inspectors from the Russian nuclear production facility at Votkinsk. Nearly a month later, he secured the signatures of all 40 Republican senators plus Lieberman on a letter objecting to further reductions in nuclear weapons “in the absence of a significant program to modernize our nuclear deterrent.”

The new year has only seen new letters. In February, Kyl, McCain, and Lieberman sent a letter to National Security Advisor James Jones protesting reports that Moscow plans to issue a unilateral statement threatening to withdraw from START follow-on if it felt threatened by U.S. missile defense deployments. The latest missive came two weeks ago, when Kyl joined with McConnell in a letter to Obama objecting to alleged U.S. concessions to Russia on missile defense while reiterating his desire for a 10-year spending plan on the nuclear weapons complex.

Still, despite all of this activity and his loud opposition to the CTBT, Kyl hasn’t declared his opposition to START follow-on.

The administration’s response. Until very recently, there hasn’t been much return fire. The White House determined early on that it wouldn’t engage Kyl publicly or do much to promote the treaty until it was signed. Unfortunately, it has been true to its word.

As for the senators who chair the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, John Kerry and Carl Levin respectively, they, too, didn’t say much about the treaty until its signing became imminent. In fact, besides Lugar, who has indicated early and consistent support for START follow-on, just about every other senator has responded to Obama’s nuclear weapons agenda and the treaty negotiations with the sounds of silence. (Although, to be fair, in the last two weeks, Minnesota Democrat Al Franken, Pennsylvania Democrat Robert Casey Jr., and Delaware Democrat Ted Kaufman all trooped to the Senate floor to deliver strong speeches in support of START follow-on; other senators who have begun speaking out include California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, and Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley.)

The White House has finally started to respond implicitly to some of Kyl’s arguments by emphasizing its support for a “safe, effective, and reliable” nuclear deterrent. In February, the administration sent Congress its fiscal year 2011 budget that provided a 13.4-percent spending increase for the National Nuclear Security Agency. And a few days before, Vice President Joseph Biden wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “We will spend what is necessary to maintain the safety, security, and effectiveness of our weapons.”

The Obama administration’s message, largely echoed by senators from both parties, is that its budget request for the weapons complex addresses concerns about the shape of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. Even Kyl, in his latest missive, concedes, “[The new budget] is a meaningful and necessary, though not sufficient, improvement over prior years.”

Finally, on March 26, the administration unleashed its big guns in support of the treaty. Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, held a press conference trumpeting completion of the agreement. At the same time, administration officials reached out to key senators and reporters to seek support for the treaty.

There is fear that the administration is spending all of its bargaining chips on START follow-on and that it won’t have any left when it comes to passing the CTBT. Those with long memories recall that the Clinton administration poured large amounts of money into a newly created Stockpile Stewardship Program to win support for the CTBT only to see the nuclear weapons laboratory directors more or less abandon the treaty.

Yet Obama employed a similar strategy for health-care reform, agreeing to a series of compromises and trade-offs that made his allies queasy but were necessary for success. Similarly, the Obama nuclear budget increase can be seen as a trade-off necessary to win approval of START follow-on. Obviously, it’s too soon to conclude whether he is paying too high of a price.

The more immediate question is whether START follow-on will be approved by the Senate this year. That judgment, too, largely depends on whether Obama and the Republican leadership can reach an accommodation. There is some possibility of a vote before the midterm elections, but there may be more of a possibility in the lame-duck, post-election session in the fall. A potential clincher for a 2010 vote: The longer the treaty is in limbo, the longer the means of verifying Russia’s enormous nuclear arsenal remain suspended. Even Jon Kyl might not like that.

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