Political Target?: Will Partisanship Threaten Arms Control Agenda?

Before the Senate went out of session last week for the summer recess, it approved last-minute measures to fund border security and passed a child nutrition bill. Senators confirmed a new intelligence chief, a new Centcom commander, and a new Supreme Court Justice. But one thing they didn't do was act on a new arms control treaty with Russia, threatening the administration's goal of ratifying the pact before the end of the year.

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Last Tuesday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA, announced he would delay a key committee vote on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) until Congress re-convenes in September, acknowledging that Republican concerns would make it impossible to move forward on the matter with bipartisan support.

The committee's ranking member, Senator Richard Lugar, R-IN, has been the only Republican to fully support the new treaty and he has urged his GOP colleagues to join him.

"In consultation with Senator Lugar, 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," Kerry said in a statement.

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But some wonder if Republicans are only stalling on approval of the pact, reluctant to give President Obama a foreign policy victory ahead of a contentious midterm election where nothing short of legislative control is at stake. If the treaty doesn't make it out of committee until September, it could hit the Senate floor just as the election campaign kicks into high gear. Or it could be delayed beyond that, endangering the goal of ratification by the end of the year.

The new START treaty was signed by President Obama and Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev earlier this year following over a year of negotiations and many missed deadlines. The deal limits each countries' strategic nuclear arsenal to 1,550 warheads, 75% less than limits imposed by the previous START agreement signed in 1991.

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Many Republicans have remained skeptical of the treaty, though experts say their reasons for opposition have changed.

New Concerns About Treaty

Initially, some Republicans argued that the new deal would limit America's ability to deploy a missile defense shield. Others alleged that Russia cheated under the original START agreement and they are therefore wary of trusting Moscow.

According to former Ambassador Steven Pifer, an expert on Russia and arms control at the Brookings Institution, those concerns are unfounded.

"When they were examined it didn't really hold up," he said. Pifer sees a shift, however, in Republican complaints about the treaty. Some Republicans now say they will not support the treaty unless they receive assurances that future maintenance of the US nuclear arsenal will be funded.

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"The concern is that the nuclear weapons complex, the national laboratories which supply the nuclear program, have been short on funding the last ten years so they want to use their support for the treaty to make sure that that problem is rectified," he said.

Arizona Republican Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain have been leading skeptics of the treaty.

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