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Future for "New START" Murky After Election

Russian Nuclear Missile on Mobile Launcher

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration appears to face an even more daunting challenge in convincing the Senate to ratify a U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control treaty in the wake of this week's election results. How GOP gains in the chamber will impact the pact's chances, though, might not be known for weeks or months (see GSN, Nov. 4).

Proponents of "New START" urged the Senate to quickly bring the treaty to a vote, while skeptics argued for caution and more deliberation.

"This election was about jobs, the economy and federal spending; not foreign policy," said Arms Control Association head Daryl Kimball. "There continues to be bipartisan support for reducing the nuclear weapons threat."

U.S. President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April signed the successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The deal requires Moscow and Washington to each cut their deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550 warheads and to limit their active nuclear delivery vehicles to 700, with another 100 platforms held in reserve.

The accord must be approved by lawmakers in both capitals before it enters into force. The White House in May formally submitted the agreement to the Senate, where it must garner 67 votes to achieve ratification.

That means the treaty would need bipartisan support, a goal that has proven elusive for the Obama administration and could become even more complicated as Republicans in the midterm elections this week picked up a half-dozen more Senate seats.

A "lame-duck" congressional session is slated to convene on Nov. 15. However, it is not yet known whether the treaty will be considered before the next Congress takes over in January, or if there is even now enough Republican backing for passage.

Yesterday the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton separately said they hoped the Senate would ratify the treaty before the end of this year's congressional term.

"This is not a traditionally Democratic or Republican issue, but, rather, an issue of American national security," Obama said. "I'm hopeful that we can get that done ... and send a strong signal to Russia that we're serious about reducing nuclear arsenals, but also send a signal to the world that we're serious about nonproliferation."

Republicans remain wary that language in the pact might constrain U.S. missile defense activities against threats from nations such as Iran and North Korea and question whether the Obama administration is committed to adequately funding upkeep of a smaller post-treaty nuclear arsenal.

There was no sign this week that the GOP wanted to rush consideration of the pact. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) expressed doubt that there was sufficient time to deal with the treaty this year, the Associated Press reported.

The administration delivered the treaty to the Senate last spring, and the pact's ratification resolution was passed out of the chamber's Foreign Relations Committee in September. Right now it would need nine GOP votes to be approved.

If the chamber does not act before the conclusion of the current term, Senate rules would require the agreement to be sent back to the Foreign Relations Committee for another vote. If action is put off until the next Congress, the treaty would then require support from 14 Republicans in a full floor vote.

Kimball called on lawmakers to take up the treaty during the potentially brief post-election session.

"Sometimes there are things you can put off today and take care of tomorrow but this not one of those things," he told Global Security Newswire during a Wednesday phone interview. "We're already 300-plus days beyond the expiration of START I and there" have been zero inspections of Russian nuclear facilities since.

Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, the Obama administration's lead negotiator for the new treaty, voiced similar concerns in September (see GSN, Sept. 15).

She said that without the verification regime in place the United States would, over time, lose "certainty" about Russia's strategic nuclear posture.

"I don't mean to sound like a politician, but at some point the Senate needs to put politics aside, they need to ... stop trying to extract concessions on side issues, and actually get the business of the country done," Kimball said.

A vote on a major U.S.-Russian arms control agreement during a lame-duck session would be "unprecedented," according to Heritage Foundation research fellow Baker Spring. He argued it is "contradictory" for the administration, which missed its own deadline to finalize the new treaty before its predecessor expired last December, to now ask the Senate to hurry its deliberations.

"Basically what the administration is now saying to the Senate is we'd rather that you get it now than get it right," Spring said.

He said he believes the immediate changes in the Senate roster demand a slowdown for consideration of the treaty.

Three Democrats were appointed to serve the terms of retired colleagues and will relinquish their seats once the post-election conference begins in 10 days, according to Spring. At least one of those seats would be filled by U.S. Representative Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), immediately lifting the minimum of nine GOP votes for ratification from eight to nine.

Others to be seated Nov. 15 are Democrats Chris Coons (Del.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.).

Those new senators "have not been here, haven't been given the opportunity to review the treaty in the detail that it deserves," Spring told GSN. "Asking them to cast essentially one of the first votes they ever cast on one of the most important national security issues imaginable? To me that's not due diligence."

The chamber should hold off on ratifying the 10-year treaty until the entire freshman class of senators is seated and has reviewed the accord, he added.

Those reasons are not enough to delay a vote on the agreement, according to John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World.

He said the candidates had to be aware of the agreement in the event they were asked about it on the campaign trail. "It's not as if they're totally unfamiliar," Isaacs said.

In addition, "it's not as if 100 senators sit there and study page after page of the treaty, the negotiating record and associated documents. That's not the way they do it," he told GSN. "If you're saying that they might only have a week to study the treaty, well that's kind of the norm in the United States Senate."

It also could take up to three months for the new Congress to organize committee assignments and hold leadership elections, further postponing "the verification so desired by the intelligence community," Isaacs added.

Ratification Uncertainty Continues

Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), a staunch supporter of New START, last week expressed concern that a lack of attention on the matter in the face of the midterm elections could mean the treaty is not ratified during a lame-duck session (see GSN, Oct. 28).

The pact is "just not a high priority for many Republican members," the Indiana lawmaker told the Council on Foreign Relations.

Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) "remains committed to working with Ranking Member Lugar, Republicans, and the administration to enable the Senate to get this done by the end of the year," according to panel spokeswoman Jennifer Berlin.

"Failure to approve New START as soon as possible would not only weaken American security, it would undermine the spirit of bipartisanship that has characterized previous arms control deliberations. In September, committee members from both sides of the aisle came together to act in the best interest of our national security. Now it's the Senate's turn," she said in a statement to GSN.

New START garnered support from three committee Republicans when it moved the agreement to the full Senate. Four Republicans voted against the pact.

Whether proponents can secure the nine Republican votes needed to ratify New START before 2011 is likely to depend on the stance taken by Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who has said he would not back the treaty without a long-term, well financed commitment to modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

The three-term conservative lawmaker has worked to create a national security leadership role in the chamber separate from Lugar's stance.

In response to demands from Kyl and other GOP senators, the White House has rolled out a 10-year, $80 billion blueprint for warhead-stockpile sustainment and a five-year plan for arsenal refurbishment funding.

"The administration has gone more than halfway in addressing some of the state concerns from Senator Kyl," according to Kimball. The nuclear infrastructure budget "is higher than Senator Kyl or any previous Republican administration has ever called for or worked for."

"It if fiscally irresponsible to simply try to hold out New START in order to throw hundreds of millions more dollars at a program that can't absorb it," he added. "There are only so many needs that can be justified by green eye shade budget calculations."

A spokesman for the Arizona Republican did not return repeated messages seeking comment.

Spring said it is unclear what, if any, sway Senate's No. 2 Republican would hold over the incoming class of lawmakers.

"It depends on the views of the individual senators ... as they move forward and who they decide to consult with within the Senate and without it," he told GSN.

Isaacs also cautioned "not to lump the new class all together," saying that several candidates have held federal office before and are familiar with the mechanics of government, including legislative compromise.

He highlighted Kirk's experience in the lower chamber along with Senator-elect Robert Portman (R-Ohio), who served in the House as well as high-level federal positions including director of the Management and Budget Office.

"Returning senators and some of these new senators who are more 'establishment?' They can do business," Isaacs said.

A Coons spokesman told said the incoming lawmaker would vote in favor of the treaty. North Dakota Governor and Senator-elect John Hoeven (R) would need to review the details of the agreement before commenting, a campaign spokesman told GSN.

Repeated e-mails and messages for comment were not returned by the remaining senatorial campaigns.

However, a Manchin spokeswoman told Foreign Policy last month that his "governing philosophy on defense policy will be to listen to our commanders and generals on the ground" (see GSN, Oct. 22). She did not specify who those leaders might be.

Meanwhile, a Kirk spokesman told Foreign Policy that the incoming senator would "review the details of the treaty carefully and make his decision based on what is in the best interest of America's national security."

Isaacs said that in addition to a possible debate on New START, senators already face a packed schedule that includes debate on the annual spending bills, the extension of all or some of the Bush administration's tax cuts and the impeachment of a federal judge from Louisiana.

"I expect there to be a substantive session in the next two months," he said.

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