Lame-Duck Senate Expected to Take Up Divisive Arms-Reduction Treaty Wednesday

By Patrick Goodenough | December 15, 2010 | 5:45 AM EST

President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev meet in London on April 1, 2009. (AP Photo)

( – The U.S. Senate looks poised to begin debate Wednesday on the Obama administration’s controversial nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.

Critics say a vote on New START, if successful, would be the first time the Senate has given its advice and consent to the ratification of a major treaty during a lame-duck session.

Wrangling over the treaty – which White House press secretary Robert Gibbs Tuesday called “a strong and important priority” for President Obama – has become an unforgiving fight between resurgent congressional Republicans unhappy with the document as it stands and the administration, which has secured and highlighted the support of prominent members of past Republican administrations.

A spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that debate on both New START and an omnibus government spending bill would likely begin “as early as tomorrow,” following a vote on the tax package compromise negotiated between Obama and the GOP.

The treaty, signed by Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague last April, commits the U.S. and Russia to reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550, within seven years, down from the current ceiling of 2,200.

A vote in this Congress would require nine Republicans to side with all 58 Democrats (including the two Independent senators) for the measure to pass. In the next Congress the number of GOP votes needed would rise to 14.

Supporters of the treaty were buoyed late last week by expressions of support from Maine’s two moderate Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, who join Indiana’s Sen. Dick Lugar, ranking Foreign Relations Committee member, in the column of Republicans endorsing New START.

Republican Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.) voted with Lugar in favor of the treaty in the Foreign Relations Committee last September. Two departing Republicans, Sens. Judd Gregg (N.H.) and Robert Bennett (Utah) have indicated they will likely support ratification. If all four – Corker, Isakson, Gregg and Bennett – do so, the Democrats need just two more GOP votes to ensure passage.

Much attention was given a speech Friday by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who said that he and Sen. Jon Kyl had been working to resolve concerns in the treaty relating to nuclear modernization and missile defense, respectively. “And I think we are very close,” he added.

Gibbs expressed optimism that the treaty has the required votes.

“I think it’s clear that if you look at the number of Democrats and Republicans that have said they’re supportive of this treaty, that number is at or exceeds 67,” he said. “That’s the number we need and that’s the number that we expect to exceed when this is passed.”

‘No principled basis for objecting to clear language’

One of the most contentious issues in the wording of the treaty is whether it limits future U.S. missile defense options.

Missile defense arises both in the preamble, which recognizes “the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms,” and in the treaty itself, where article five prohibits the placement of missile defense interceptors in intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers, or the conversion or missile defense interceptors into ICBM or SLBM launchers

The Obama administration has said repeatedly that the treaty does not in any way constrain U.S. missile defense programs, but senior Russian officials and lawmakers have indicated that they view it differently.

Two days before the treaty was signed in April, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated that Russia could withdraw from it if it felt that U.S. missile defense plans in Europe were beginning “to significantly affect the efficiency of Russian strategic nuclear forces.”

“If the Obama administration believes that New START does not limit America’s right to missile-defense development, then it has no principled basis for opposing the addition of clear language in the actual treaty codifying this right,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute argued Tuesday.

Rep. “Buck” McKeon (Calif.), the incoming Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is urging senators to delay a vote on the New START treaty “until important security issues are addressed and resolved.” (Photo: McKeon Web site)

Although the Senate alone has responsibility for giving advice and consent to international treaties, members of the House of Representatives have also entered the discussion.

Incoming Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Rep. “Buck” McKeon (Calif.) sent a letter to Senate leaders last week, co-signed by 15 of his colleagues on the committee, urging them to delay a vote on the treaty “until important security issues are addressed and resolved.”

Acknowledging that the House has no role in voting on New START, they pointed out that “the outcome of the treaty will undoubtedly impact national security policy and investment decisions within our jurisdiction as authorizers of the annual defense bill, and we will be responsible for overseeing its implementation.”

“Because of these roles, we feel compelled to express our concerns.”

On the Democratic side of the House, outgoing chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.) waded into the debate on Tuesday, writing that immediate Senate approval of the treaty “is vitally important to U.S. national security.”

In a Gallup poll released last week, 51 percent of respondents said they would support New START, 30 percent said they would oppose it and 19 percent were undecided. In a breakdown by party, identified Democrats supported the treaty by 56-28, and Republicans by 49-34.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow