Ratification of the new nuclear arms treaty with the Russians may not be as easy as the White House, Senate Democrats, and the media appear to expect. The pact, called the New START agreement, faces early trouble in the Senate – serious trouble.
Republicans, led by Senator John Kyl of Arizona, have balked at proceeding with consideration of the treaty until the Obama administration turns over the full record of negotiations with the Russians and follows through on its promise to fund modernization of the American nuclear arsenal.
Republicans also want the official reports on how the Russians are complying – or not complying -- with the 1991 START agreement and the Moscow treaty, ratified in 2003. Not a single compliance report has been sent to the Senate since 2005.
Should the Obama administration refuse to satisfy Republicans, it would take 60 votes to defeat a possible Republican filibuster. Ratification of the treaty requires 67 votes.
Six Republican senators requested the record of negotiations that led to the New START agreement in a letter to President Obama on May 6. They said they needed the record “in order to form a fully informed opinion” and to fulfill their “advise and consent” role.
Their request was sweeping. The documents Republicans are seeking “include but are not limited to drafts, memoranda, notes, statements, records of meetings, working papers, transcriptions, correspondence, letters, electronic mail, or any other form of communication” between American and Russian negotiators.
The suspicion among Republicans is that negotiators may have acceded to Russian demands on several issues, most notably missile defense. In a unilateral statement accompanying the treaty, the Russians claimed the right to withdraw from New START if American missile defense forces are upgraded “quantitatively or qualitatively.” The U.S. didn’t reject this claim, except to note that nothing would be done to missile defenses to upset the strategic balance between the two countries.
Republicans want to know what American negotiators told the Russians in their private talks, particularly any assurances they might have given about any U.S. intentions on strengthening missile defenses.
The State Department hasn’t rejected the request for the negotiating record, but hasn’t turned it over either or even said it would. Republican officials believe the department doesn’t want to hand it over.
On missile modernization, the Obama administration has announced plans to spend $80 billion on extending the life of aging warheads and another $100 billion on missile delivery systems. But the $180 billion is taken from other parts of the defense budget. It’s not new funding, as Republicans insist is necessary. “You’ve got to have a real commitment to modernization,” Kyl told me.
Kyl, the Senate Republican whip, and Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut appealed directly to Vice President Joe Biden in May to get the initial appropriation for modernization, asking for $624 million. Biden said he would make sure the money is appropriated, according to Kyl. Since then, “nothing’s happened,” he says.
The first test may come today. The question is whether the $624 million will be included in the spending bill the House Energy and Water Appropriations subcommittee is scheduled to take up. “They’ve at least got to get the money in the first year,” Kyl says. “The START treaty depends on this. This is the sine qua non.”
The treaty would limit the number of deployed missile delivery systems to 700. The U.S. currently has 880, requiring a reduction of 180. The Russians already have fewer than 700. “This is the first time that I am aware of that the United States will agree to launcher limitations that will require the United States to reduce its forces, but require no reductions by Russia,” Kyl said in a May 24 speech. “It is fair to ask what the U.S. got for this concession.”
Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he wants to bring the treaty to the Senate floor before the August congressional recess.
Kyl opposes a fast track to a vote on ratification. “I’m not aware of any similar precedent for so rushing such a treaty of this complexity,” he said in May. “Moreover, I’m not sure why the rush is necessary.” Both Russia and the U.S. have agreed to abide by the original START agreement for the time being.
UPDATE: The House energy and water appropriations subcommittee postponed its markup on Thursday, leaving the $624 million for missile modernization in limbo. Vice President Biden’s office and interested senators have been urging the subcommittee to include the money when it drafts an appropriations bill.