Congress, meanwhile, continues to meddle. Legislators have expressed all sorts of concerns about the successor agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expired Saturday. Are we giving the Russians something for nothing? Will our strategic capabilities be compromised? Should we be building new nuclear weapons or just fixing the ones we've got?
Now, the GOP's leader on the House Foreign Affairs Committee is throwing one more hot-button issue into the mix: China. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, has introduced a measure that seeks to pressure the administration to take China's nuclear arsenal into account before deciding to cut stockpiles with Russia.
The House committee has no real jurisdiction over the issue and the treaty will have to be ratified by the Senate only. Ros-Lehtinen's text simply expresses a "sense of Congress," which is mostly rhetorical. But when it comes to the sensitive issue of nuclear negotiations, rhetoric can have an effect of its own.
After stating that China "is the only declared nuclear weapons country under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that is expanding its nuclear arsenal," and quoting several government reports to explain that China is expanding its strategic missile technology and capability, Ros-Lehtinen's bill goes on to say that it would be "premature and potentially damaging to the national security interests of the United States to hold negotiations on any nuclear arms control agreement" before the administration's Nuclear Posture Review is completed, which will be sometime next year.
Of course, START follow-on negotiations have been ongoing for months and a deal is expected any day now. Republicans threw a fit late last week because the old START agreement expired Dec. 5 and the verification measures could have lapsed.
State Department officials see the GOP focus on verification as curious, considering Republicans supported the Bush administration's 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), also known as the Moscow Treaty, a three-page document that contained no verification provisions at all.
For START, the U.S. and Russian administrations issued a joint statement Dec. 4 committing "to continue to work together in the spirit of the START Treaty following its expiration." Officials have said the pending agreement will include a "bridge" to formally extend verification until ratification, although those details haven't been nailed down yet.
Still, ratification of the new treaty could be difficult in the Senate, where Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ, is already beating the drum in his bid to extract maximum concessions from the White House before signing on.
But why is the House GOP getting involved now? Fifty-seven Republicans, including Minority Leader John Boehner, R-OH, have already cosponsored Ros-Lehtinen's bill. State Department insiders see House Republicans as piling on by giving their Senate counterparts one more issue to make hay with, mixed with some good old-fashioned China bashing.
The GOP's own resolution actually states that China has about 40 nuclear-tipped missiles that could reach the continental United States today, and could only amass about 100 over the next 15 years.
That's well below the levels being discussed between the U.S. and Russia -- between 500 and 1,100 delivery vehicles each and between 1,500 and 1,675 deployed warheads. That has prompted some to wonder whether U.S. nuclear calculations should really be set with China in mind, considering that country's relatively small nuclear arsenal.
"It's silly really and undercuts their arguments for us to beef up our arsenal or do whatever it is they want to do with respect to nuclear weapons," said one source working on the issue.