The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is set to approve Sen. Richard Lugar's resolution of ratification for the New START nuclear reductions treaty with Russia this morning, but not before Sen. James Risch tried to stop the vote from happening due to what he called an alarming intelligence issue was brought to senators this week.
Risch tried to stop the hearing at the outset, saying that he had been approached by the "intelligence community" with shocking information that if true would fundamentally impact the treaty and should prevent the committee from proceeding in any way. He did not specify what the information was but implored chairman John Kerry (D-MA), to postpone the vote.
Kerry acknowledged that the intelligence community had come to committee with a last minute issue and he said he made efforts to make sure all committee members' offices were aware of the secret issue. But he declined to postpone the vote and said the issue would be vetted thoroughly before the full Senate votes.
"It is inappropriate for us to have any discussion in open session in any substance of the information," Kerry said. But he made clear he viewed the issue seriously and even spoke personally with Vice President Joseph Biden about the issue.
"The conclusion of the intelligence community is that it in no way alters their judgment, already submitted to this committee, about the substance of the treaty... We would not have proceeded today if this information had any effect on this vote or the substance of this treaty," Kerry said. "Before we go to the floor, this issue will further be vetted by the intelligence community and everybody else."
Several Hill sources declined to comment due to the fact that the information was classified.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who is now supporting the treaty, said he attended a briefing yesterday about the issue and said it would not affect his support.
Overall, Kerry endorsed the resolution of ratification put forth by Lugar, which the committee voted to replace a previously circulated version by Kerry.
"I have been particularly pleased to work with Senator Lugar to develop a resolution that we can all support," Kerry said in his opening statement for today's committee business meeting in the Dirksen Office Building, where the vote on the treaty will take place in about an hour. "This is a draft that reflects all of our views and I look forward to the committee adopting it."
He also implored senators to put aside politics and ratify the treaty soon as a matter of national security.
"The stakes are significant," Kerry said. "By ratifying this treaty, we will limit Russia's nuclear arsenal. We will regain the ability to inspect their nuclear forces. And we will redouble international support for our nonproliferation efforts.""
Kerry touted the dozens of hearings held on the issue, the testimony of current and former officials in both parties, and the hundreds of answers to questions submitted by Congress. He said the administration had provided a summary of the negotiating record, although not the full record, as some GOP senators demanded.
Kerry has been quarterbacking the ratification process since April, but recently Lugar has become the center of gravity in the START ratification process because his version of the resolution for ratification is the one that the administration, Kerry's staff, and several GOP senate offices have been working on. He raised it at the meeting as a "substitute amendment" to an earlier version floated by Kerry.
Lugar said his amendment brought in the concerns of senators and should alleviate any concerns about the treaty have a constraining impact on the plans to deploy ballistic missile defense program, a key concern of lots of GOP senators, including Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ).
"My substitute amendment covers at length concerns raised about missile defense... the treaty places no limitation on the deployment of missile defense... and the 2010 unilateral statement by the Russian federation about missile defense does not impose any legal obligation on the United States."
The full Senate won't debate the treaty until after the November elections, Kerry has said.