This is no way to approve the New START treaty
It appears increasingly likely that the Senate will not approve the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty this year. Ironically, if the treaty is not approved, its supporters will bear most of the blame.
From the outset, proponents of New START have framed the issue as one on which senators must vote either yes or no. And those not in favor of "yes" are acting, as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry said of former governor Mitt Romney, on the basis of "narrow, uninformed political objections."
This narrative grossly oversimplifies the way complex treaties typically are addressed in the Senate. In addition to voting yes or no, senators ordinarily are afforded the option of voting "yes, provided . . . " -- with that "provided" consisting of declarations and conditions in the Senate resolution of approval that are designed to remedy concerns about particular aspects of a treaty.
Overzealous supporters of treaties sometimes try to deny senators this third option, calculating that they have enough votes to ram a treaty through irrespective of some lawmakers' reservations. This strategy can work brilliantly to streamline the approval process -- but it can also fail spectacularly, as with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999.
In that case, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) threatened to obstruct all work in the Senate unless the Republican leadership agreed to schedule a yes-or-no vote. The Republican leadership acquiesced. With senators forced to choose between just two options, 48 voted yes -- while 51 voted no.
Many arms-control supporters realized afterward that they had made a huge mistake. They came to compare their approach on the test-ban treaty unfavorably to the tack they had taken two years earlier on the Chemical Weapons Convention.
When that convention was under consideration, they recognized from the outset that many senators had reservations. So supporters engaged in a formal process with potential opponents over a period of months, identifying their individual concerns and negotiating language to address those concerns in the resolution of approval. The convention was approved 74 to 26.
Today, these lessons appear to have been forgotten. Senate critics of New START have largely been cut out of the process. All but two Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee formally asked the administration to share with them the negotiating record of the treaty. They were told no, even though there is precedent for accommodating such requests.
All but one of the committee Republicans wrote to Kerry in May, asking him to invite nine witnesses to testify on the treaty. Over the course of 11 hearings featuring more than 20 witnesses, only one of the nine was invited to appear.
Given that these letters were signed by the senators whose votes are needed to reach the two-thirds majority necessary for ratification, this is a strange way to go about attracting their support.
And if treaty critics aren't going to be accommodated on questions of process, they almost certainly aren't going to be accommodated on substance. This is regrettable, because while the critics have raised serious substantive concerns, most of those concerns could be addressed in a properly crafted resolution of approval.
For example, many worry that a consultative group established under the treaty is empowered to modify its own mandate and therefore could adopt binding restrictions on the United States that would evade Senate review. This could be fixed by imposing limits on that group in the Senate resolution.
Similarly, many are concerned that, unlike previous agreements, New START appears not to limit certain types of Russian missiles. The Obama administration insists that both sides intend for such missiles to be covered by the treaty. Accordingly, the resolution could condition ratification on Russia's confirmation that it agrees with the Obama administration's assertion.
Frequently expressed concerns that the treaty may limit missile defense and long-range conventional weapons could be addressed through interpretive declarations in the resolution.
Working with the critics to address their concerns could pave the way for a strong bipartisan vote in favor of New START, as happened with the Chemical Weapons Convention. This would, however, require a level of patience and respect for dissenting views that has not been in evidence.
Instead, the process more closely resembles the one that surrounded the test-ban treaty. If current trends continue, the likely outcome will be a near party-line vote in the committee next month, probably foreclosing prospects for Senate approval this year.
Should this happen, it will be unfair to simply blame those who voted no. Rather, it will be important to ask whether supporters could have done more to help them find a way to vote "yes, provided . . ."
The writer, senior counsel at the lobbying firm BGR Government Affairs, was an assistant secretary of state from 2002 to 2006.