Biden to Shepherd Test Ban Treaty Vote

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

President Obama is planning to put Vice President Biden in charge of what is expected to be the difficult job of getting the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, administration sources said.

Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg spoke of the pending assignment at a Monday luncheon sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, but Biden aides said yesterday that they could not confirm when it will be officially announced.

In 1999, as ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden led the Clinton administration's unsuccessful attempt at ratification. At that time, the treaty fell 19 votes short of the 67 needed for approval by the Republican-controlled Senate.

A senior Obama administration official said yesterday that the "first order of business" will be a comprehensive review of all the issues. These will include the two elements that helped defeat the treaty last time: the ability to verify that no underground nuclear tests are taking place and that the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons will remain reliable without further testing.

"A lot of these issues have more clear answers than they had in 1999," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the matter. He could not speculate on timing, noting that among the reasons the pact lost last time was that the vote was rushed by the Republican leadership before public support could be developed.

Although Obama has pledged to push for approval, the 67 votes could be attained only by keeping all 56 Democrats, the two independents, eight Republicans and whoever wins the second U.S. Senate seat representing Minnesota.

Last week, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the foreign relations panel, told reporters that his committee "is already working to lay the groundwork for the United States to follow Russia's lead and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty."

Senate staff members said yesterday they expect that when the treaty is presented for ratification, it will also have to go to the Armed Services Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence for review. They also said they expect that if the treaty takes effect, the intelligence community will be asked to provide a National Intelligence Estimate on it, and the Energy Department a report on nuclear weapon reliability.

The events that preceded the Oct. 13, 1999, ratification defeat preview the hurdles that Biden would have to overcome to shepherd the pact through the Senate.

Six days before that vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a long hearing on the measure. Although the Clinton administration had support from then-Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the opponents brought in former defense secretary Caspar W. Weinberger to raise the issues that are certain to come up again.

When then-Sen. Biden argued that tests below one kiloton -- the equivalent of 1,000 tons of TNT -- would be ineffective in building a new weapon and that anything above 1 kiloton could be detected, Weinberger replied that some nations would be likely to go ahead with smaller tests that could be useful and would probably would go undetected. Weinberger also raised the argument that if the United States signed the treaty and could not test, the nation's own weapons could no longer be considered reliable.

He said that while he was defense secretary, before President George H.W. Bush established a testing moratorium in 1991, U.S. nuclear weapons were taken out of service.

Weinberger said: "The assumption seems to be that since we stopped testing, everything is fine. Well, I cannot share that assumption. I do not think that is correct, and I do not want to take a chance."

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