NUCLEAR POLICY -- August 4, 2010 at 11:35 AM ET
Nuclear Arms Control Treaty Vote on Hold as Kerry Seeks Bipartisan Support
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which originally planned to take up the nuclear arms control -- or New START -- treaty on Wednesday, decided to postpone a vote until after Congress' August recess.
In April, President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed New START, which cuts American and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals by about a third.
Responding to senators who had asked for more time, committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., said he now hoped his committee would vote to approve the treaty on Sept. 15 or 16, so that there would still be time for the full Senate to vote on the measure in the autumn.
"My interest is not in trying to jam this through. I respect every senator's right to further examine it," Kerry told other senators during a committee business meeting. "I chose to reschedule the vote to be responsive to the concerns of our members so that we can build bipartisan consensus around a treaty that our military leaders all agree will make America safer."
"It's important for U.S.-Russian relations, and the longer it hangs around the less helpful it is to improving those relations."
John Isaacs, head of the Council for a Livable World
Both liberal and conservative arms control watchers say Kerry didn't have the votes he needed to pass the measure. According to Henry Sokolski, who served in the George W. H. Bush administration, Kerry sought to have more than one Republican voting in favor of the treaty and "so far couldn't get it." Of the eight Republicans on the committee, only Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana has publicly supported the treaty; the rest are either non-committal or against it, Sokolski said.
Another possible reason to delay the vote, Sokolski added, is that a number of Republican critics of the treaty believe senators on other panels, the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees, should be allowed to finish holding hearings on the treaty and forward their findings to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. By having a vote before the other committees passed judgment on the treaty, Kerry would have been "violating" normal agreement ratification protocols, Sokolski said.
In a letter to fellow senators, Kerry acknowledged as much, writing that "a number of you have since requested ... input from the Armed Services Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence."
The delay in the vote gives Senate Democrats more time to try to build support for the treaty, according to John Isaacs, head of the Council for a Livable World. Only the Senate needs to approve the measure.
"They want to have as strong a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as possible so there will be more Republican votes in the full Senate," Isaacs said. If Kerry forced a vote on Wednesday, he would win Lugar's vote, but would likely have forfeited the votes of Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Johnny Isackson, R-Ga., who are still undecided, Isaacs said.
The timing of the vote -- and elections -- might be a factor as well. Isaacs said he suspects another reason why the Senate Armed Services Committee has not yet taken up the treaty is because Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is in a tight primary race with a conservative opponent, "doesn't want to sign anything that shows he is a moderate."
But Isaacs said the delay would not be a problem as long as the full Senate vote is not too long in coming. "It's important for U.S.-Russian relations, and the longer it hangs around the less helpful it is to improving those relations."
In addition, the longer both countries go without the treaty, the longer the U.S. will be unable to benefit from the treaty's verification provisions, said Isaacs. "There has been a tendency during the Cold War when both sides had to guess what the other side had, to do worst-case analysis and build too many nuclear weapons because we over-estimated what they had. This treaty will set up procedures so we know what they are doing," he said.
However, Sokolski asks why the Senate would rush ratification. "The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (of 1987) took five months to be ratified and that was an uncontroversial treaty. Even if the New START treaty was not ratified till February 2011, that would be historically one of the quickest ratifications in history," he said.
The objections and concerns that many Republicans have to the treaty should be addressed before the committee and full Senate votes, Sokolski continued. Many Republicans are concerned that the treaty will limit the deployment of strategic ballistic missile defenses, and that not enough is being done to ensure the remaining stockpile of America's aging nuclear arsenal will remain effective. He predicted that a full vote in the Senate will not take place till after the November congressional elections.