The Senate Foreign Relations committee approved a resolution to ratify the New START nuclear reductions treaty with Russia on Thursday, overcoming objections by Sen. James Risch about new top secret intelligence and after reaching a compromise over strategic posture with Sen. Jim DeMint.
The vote was 14-4, with all Democrats voting to approve the resolution along with Republican Sens. Richard Lugar (R-IN), Bob Corker (R-TN), and Johnny Isakson (R-GA). Sens. James Inhofe (R-OK), John Barrasso (R-WY), Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Risch voted no.
South Carolina's DeMint, whose attempt to add language on missile defense to the resolution was the focus of intense backroom negotiations, did not return from a break to attend the final vote. Since he did not tell ranking Republican Lugar which way he wanted to vote, his expected no vote was never entered.
Lugar and Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) praised the committee's approval of the resolution and Kerry said he would not rule out holding a Senate floor debate and vote before the November elections.
But a Senate leadership aide ruled it out, telling The Cable, "There's no way we can do it this month, they don't have the 67 votes yet (needed for full Senate ratification)."
All morning, the committee room was abuzz regarding Risch's disclosure that he had received late-breaking intelligence information that he argued should prevent the Senate from moving forward on the New START treaty.
In a brief interview on the miniature subway between the Dirksen building and the Capitol, Risch confirmed to The Cable that the information was contained in a top secret intelligence community document sent to the Intelligence Committee this week and a follow-up letter sent to foreign relations committee members by ranking Republican Kit Bond (R-MO).
Risch confirmed that the information concerned Russian cheating on arms control agreements and said it was only the latest in a stream of documents and information that led him to have grave concerns that the New START treaty could move forward in a credible way.
The Cable pointed out to Risch that allegations of Russian cheating, especially regarding the first START treaty, have been well reported and subsequently addressed by the administration (via The Cable). But Risch responded that the problem was worse than what's publicly known.
"You haven't seen the stuff that I've seen," he said.
Bond's office confirmed the existence of the letter but declined to discuss because it was classified. Kerry convened a Wednesday briefing on the issue for SFRC members and consulted Vice President Joseph Biden on the issue before deciding that he believed the ratification process could proceed.
Before disappearing, DeMint's proposed amendment to "commit" the United States to build a multi-layered missile defense system to defend the American people and deployed U.S. forces from missiles of all ranges became the most controversial amendment brought forth at the committee's business meeting, where the debate and vote on New START was occurring.
Kerry was adamantly opposed to the DeMint amendment, saying it could imperil the treaty altogether. But after Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) said he would support DeMint's amendment, meaning that it could actually pass, Kerry huddled behind closed doors with DeMint, Corker, Isaacson, and Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemeoller (who was hanging out nearby) to iron out a compromise.
The Cable obtained copies of both DeMint's original amendment as well as the compromise that Kerry eventually endorsed and that was added to the resolution of ratification by unanimous consent voice vote.
The compromise version changes DeMint's amendment from an "understanding" to a "declaration," which makes it non-binding. The compromise version also no longer says the U.S. is "committed" to building an expansive all-encompassing missile defense system; the new language says the U.S. is "free to reduce the vulnerability to attack by constructing a layered missile defense system capable of countering missiles of all ranges." The compromise also removes language that makes it seem that missile defense should be aimed at Russia.
In a concession to DeMint, Kerry agreed to language that now says "policies based on mutually assured destruction can be contrary to the safety and security of both countries and the United States and the Russian Federation share a common interest in moving cooperatively as soon as possible from a strategic relationship based on mutually assured destruction."
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.