With the Senate poised to reject a nuclear test-ban treaty as early as today, President Clinton formally asked for a postponement yesterday, preferring inaction to the outright rejection of a pact he considers an administration priority.
While some senators welcomed the request as an effort to break the political impasse over the issue, GOP leaders also want assurances that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty won't reemerge for consideration before 2001. Neither the White House nor Senate Democratic leaders would make such a promise, and lawmakers said they would proceed toward a vote in which all sides agree the treaty would be soundly rejected.
Still, there appears to be a political way out for those Republicans who are wary of being accused of killing the treaty and those Democrats who would rather see it lie dormant than be voted down. Some senators said they would push for a procedural vote on whether to postpone a ratification decision indefinitely. A simple majority could approve such a move, whereas ratification of the test-ban treaty requires a two-thirds vote, or 67 senators.
The treaty is thought to have fewer than 50 Senate backers, mostly Democrats, but a number of Republicans who oppose it have said they do not want to see it defeated in a vote that could embarrass the United States around the world.
"We're at an important threshold in history," said Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.). "It's in the national security interests of this nation not to have this vote right now."
Clinton long has argued the importance of the treaty, which would prohibit all tests of nuclear bombs and establish monitoring stations and sanctions throughout the world. But the White House appeared to be caught flat-footed last month when Senate GOP leaders suddenly scheduled a debate and vote on the pact, which Clinton had signed in 1996.
Unable to attract more than a couple of Republicans, who hold 55 of 100 seats, Clinton last week began urging the chamber to postpone action and allow for weeks or months of debate. Yesterday he put the request in the form of a letter to Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.).
"I firmly believe the treaty is in the national interest," Clinton wrote. "However, I recognize there are a significant number of senators who have honest disagreements. Accordingly, I request that you postpone consideration of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty."
Senate GOP leaders indicated they would postpone a vote only if Democrats agreed that the treaty issue would lie fallow at least through the 2000 elections. "This written request is merely a first step," said Lott spokesman John Czwartacki. "As the majority leader has stated all along, not only must the treaty be withheld from consideration at this time, an agreement must be reached that it not come up again any time in this Congress."
Publicly, at least, White House officials refused to make such a promise.
"People have real concerns that we can't predict the international environment over the next 18 months," said administration spokesman David Leavy, noting that Pakistan and India recently tested nuclear weapons. "To put a sign on U.S. policy to say we're closed for business is not the best way to advance our nonproliferation agenda."
Senate Democrats said Clinton's letter should satisfy all parties. "This should be an easy call," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), the Foreign Relations Committee's ranking Democrat, said in a statement. "The president has asked for a delay. Most Democrats and many Republicans support a delay. It's clearly in our national interest to put off this vote without any further wrangling. I hope the Senate puts the national interest first."
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said he opposes the treaty but may vote with Democrats to postpone a ratification showdown, even if there's no promise about its prospects next year.
"I think a bipartisan majority agrees that we need time to work our way through this," said Hagel, a frequent critic of the GOP leadership. "If this gets down to a test of political manhood between Senator Lott and the president, that's just not responsible governance. This is too important for the world."
Clinton says ratification is essential to secure the United States' nuclear arsenal superiority and to prod other nations -- including Russia and China -- into also ratifying. Fifty-one nations have ratified the treaty, including 26 of the 44 nuclear-capable nations whose ratification is required before the treaty takes effect.
Opponents say the treaty would keep the United States from modernizing its nuclear arsenal while other countries made progress toward nuclear capabilities, either by defying the ban or testing without detection. Supporters say detection would be sufficient to halt virtually all nuclear testing, which the United States voluntarily ended several years ago.
Some pro-treaty groups feel the White House didn't lobby hard enough for the pact over the past two years and was caught unprepared when Lott suddenly called for a vote.
"They just completely dropped the ball," said Gordon S. Clark, executive director of Peace Action, which calls itself the nation's largest grass-roots peace and disarmament group. "You can't say it's a top priority for foreign policy and then do nothing with it for two years."
Leavy said Clinton had tried in vain to prod Senate interest in the treaty. "He's literally spoken about this 10 times" before last month's call for a Senate vote, Leavy said.