Vote on New START nuclear arms treaty delayed in Senate

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 2010; A01

The Obama administration's hopes for rapid, bipartisan approval of its new arms-control treaty with Russia have dimmed, with Republican senators making clear that they will not support ratification without iron-clad assurances of future spending to maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, announced Tuesday that he will delay a key vote on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) until after the summer recess. That will pitch the treaty into the politically charged period just before the November elections.

The administration remains optimistic that the accord can be approved this year, and Kerry said the delay would help rather than harm the effort. But the debate has illustrated the partisan distrust in the Senate, where Republicans have taken the unusual step of seeking to examine the classified negotiating record to truth-squad the administration's assertions.

Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser for President George H.W. Bush, said recently that the political battle was the most bitter he had seen over a nuclear treaty.

"It doesn't move the ball very much," Scowcroft said of the pact, which he supports. "But there's an atmosphere of great hostility."

Many U.S. allies had assumed New START would easily be ratified this year. The treaty commits the United States and Russia to modest cuts in their long-range, ready-to-use weapons and extends a 15-year system allowing each side to check the other's nuclear facilities. It is the cornerstone of the Obama administration's attempt to "reset" relations with Moscow.

The treaty has been endorsed by six former secretaries of state and five former secretaries of defense from both parties, and nearly all former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces. French Ambassador Pierre Vimont said recently that after diplomats cabled home that the treaty could run into problems, "People ask us, 'Have you been drinking?' "

Republicans' demands

Republicans have submitted more than 700 questions about the pact since it was introduced in May. They are insisting on more guarantees for a 10-year budget increase to fix up the aging nuclear weapons complex.

"The sooner our requests are satisfied, the sooner we'll be in a position to act on the treaty," said Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the leading Republican voice on the pact.

The Obama administration wants to ratify the treaty this year, while the Democratic caucus has 59 votes. At least eight Republican votes will be needed for the two-thirds threshold for ratification. The administration hopes for more votes than that, to give momentum to its future arms-control efforts.

So far, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) appears to be the only solid Republican "yes" vote. That gives the GOP considerable leverage.

Obama has pledged to spend $80 billion over a decade to modernize the nuclear weapons complex, roughly a $10 billion increase in funding. In addition, the plan envisions spending $100 billion on strategic bombers and long-range missiles that carry nuclear warheads.

Several Republican senators say that's not enough.

"The modernization numbers are about $10 billion below" what's needed, said Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee whose vote has been courted by the administration. "That's obviously something that has to be addressed." He also called for more detail in the administration's plan.

Modernization of the nuclear weapons complex "is a huge consideration for me," Kyl said in an interview. He particularly wants to ensure the bigger funding outlays in the latter years of Obama's plan, he said.

The administration, of course, can't guarantee what Congress will be willing to approve several years in the future, when it may not even be in office. But Kyl said the administration "has to reach out more to Democrats in the House and Senate and say, 'If we're in charge, you guys have to be serious about supporting all this.' "

Other issues have cropped up: whether the treaty will constrain U.S. missile defense, whether it inhibits the development of conventional "global strike" weapons, whether the administration has serious plans to modernize the Triad -- the fleet of strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles based on submarines and on land.

Some senior Republicans have even argued that the treaty is not needed.

Obama administration officials have been scrambling to satisfy GOP concerns. There have been 18 hearings on the treaty and related issues, in addition to numerous private briefings. When Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, raised questions in one hearing, he got a follow-up call from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

After questions in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week about the Triad, the administration quickly arranged for two closed-door hearings on the subject.

Is politics at play?

Some treaty supporters believe that Republicans are dragging their feet on the treaty for political reasons.

"Some just don't want to give Obama a victory" before the midterm elections, Scowcroft said.

Republicans deny playing politics, noting that previous treaties took months to ratify. "The treaty needs to be appropriately reviewed," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the minority leader.

But some Republicans may be wary of campaigns against New START launched by Heritage Action for America, an offshoot of the conservative Heritage Foundation, and a "tea party"-affiliated group, Liberty Central.

With an 11 to 8 margin on the Foreign Relations Committee, Democrats could have approved the treaty in a scheduled vote Wednesday and sent it to the Senate floor. But that would have probably amplified charges by Republicans that the administration is trying to ram the treaty through the Senate.

"If we forced a vote today, I would have won. But I would have angered some people and made them feel they weren't being included," Kerry said. "I think it's important to build a broader consensus." He hopes to resolve Republicans' concerns "in a matter of weeks."

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