There's a growing realization on Capitol Hill that Senate ratification of the START follow-on treaty with Russia will probably not happen this year.
One problem, of course, is that there is no agreement as yet to ratify. President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reportedly talked over the phone Wednesday and agreed to speed up the final phase of the negotiations, which have lagged since the old START treaty expired last December. The outstanding issues have included how to deal with Russian concerns over U.S. missile defense plans and Russian demands for access to American missile defense telemetry.
But even if the treaty were signed soon (which nobody is predicting), the huge demand for time it would take for the Senate to scrutinize and then ratify the agreement makes a ratification on the U.S. side unlikely in 2010, multiple Hill sources said. The process would take at least six months and everybody knows the Senate shuts down in August of any election year.
That's also assuming leading Republicans don't throw additional roadblocks in the way of the treaty as part of their drive to thwart any Obama success or bargain for new nuclear warheads. Senior Democratic senators have said very recently that ratification on its face could be very problematic.
Here's how the ratification process would go. After the two presidents sign the deal, the administration would be tasked with preparing reams of supporting documents, annexes, explainers, and other supplementary materials. All of those would be sent to the Hill for members and staffers to pour over.
The relevant congressional committees then have to prepare reports of their own outlining their take on the treaty. That process would also likely involve a back and forth with the administration to get clarifications on specific provisions. The administration might have to work with the Russians to make sure their clarifications are mutually acceptable. That could take time.
Then, the committees have to schedule and hold hearings, both the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. Other committees dealing with nuclear issues or oversight of national security might also want to weigh in. All of those committees have tight schedules as they deal with a litany of important issues under their purview.
After the hearings, members and offices have another round of questions and clarifications. And if all that goes well, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, can then set aside precious floor time for a debate and vote on the treaty. There could even be amendments...
It's not clear whether leading GOP senators like Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ, will complicate the timeline further by moving to stall the new treaty or jam it up altogether. Kyl is bargaining for a more firm provision to build new warheads as part of the administration's "stockpile management plan." He has also promised to oppose the treaty if he thinks it imposes on U.S. missile defense options.
So what does this mean for the rest of the administration's arms control agenda? Probably a delay until next year for a push to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as well. That agreement has even less chance than the START follow-on of garnering Republican support.
"In the end, Kyl isn't so much opposed to START, but he is really opposed to CTBT," one Hill aide said.
For its part, the Russian Duma is expected to ratify the treaty whenever the Russian government tells it to.
UPDATE: A White House official confirms late Wednesday that, "The two Presidents spoke earlier today and agreed to urge their negotiators to conclude a post-START treaty."
UPDATE #2: A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, adds, "Senator Reid has long been expecting to receive and consider the START treaty during the 2010 calendar year. We have seen nothing to this point that would alter this expectation. Arms control treaties have always been handled in a bipartisan manner and, once the Senate receives all the details on this particular treaty, Senator Reid is confident this tradition, which is critical to our national security, will continue."
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