Political Target?: Will Partisanship Threaten Arms Control Agenda?

Nuclear Arms Reduction Treaty May be Stalled by Midterm Election Campaign

Washington, August 10, 2010 -- 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.

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.

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.

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

New Concerns About Treaty

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.

"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.

"We could be sacrificing our freedom to deploy the full range of missile defenses we need by agreeing to arms control agreements like START or other agreements or unilateral actions like the U.S. statement on missile defense accompanying the START treaty," Kyl said in a speech on May 19.

At a July 29 hearing, McCain said that "serious questions still remain about this treaty, specifically on the New START treaty's methods of verification, its potential constraints on our ballistic missile defense, and the accompanying plan for modernization of both the nuclear stockpile and our nuclear delivery vehicles."

McCain accused the U.S. negotiators of agreeing to language that would make it easier for Russia to cheat.

"This hearing is also an opportunity to try to learn why our negotiators agreed to a significantly weaker verification regime than that of the original START treaty it is to replace. So weak, in fact, that the potential for cheating is significant," he said.

Obama Administration Searches for Support

The administration has reached out to Republicans to urge them to vote yes. Vice President Biden has reportedly held discussions with Senator Kyl, and in recent months Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has met with several senators to personally address their concerns. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has held 12 hearings on the subject.

The administration hopes it can convince Senator Kyl to support the treaty, which would give other Republicans political cover to vote in favor as well.

Republicans have submitted over 700 questions to the administration about the pact. Some say this is evidence of GOP stall tactics, though Pifer says that may be more due to a lack of knowledge about the treaty than a stall tactic.

"The senate has not had to consider a serious arms control treaty now for twenty years. You don't have a level of expertise that you had say in the early 1990s when people were looking at START. People are relearning strategic arms control," he said.