With all of the uncertainty surrounding the makeup of Congress following the Nov. 2 midterm elections, the Obama administration is pushing for a debate and vote on the New START nuclear reductions treaty before the membership of the Senate changes next January. Leading GOP senators, however, are doing everything they can to resist that plan.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear she wants to see a vote on the U.S.-Russia pact -- which passed through committee on Sept. 16 -- during the "lame duck" session of Congress, after the November election but before newly elected senators take their seats.
"I look forward to the vote in the lame duck session that will once again demonstrate the Senate joining all of its predecessors in years past to continue to support arms control treaty," Clinton said confidently, standing alongside Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) on Sept. 30.
But the likelihood of the Senate making time to debate and vote on the treaty, which Kerry estimates would take three legislative days, is far from certain. Depending on whether Democrats retain control of the Senate and whether Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) loses his own election, the lame duck session or sessions could be brief. The Senate could also be consumed in November by overdue tasks, such as working on tax issues and funding the Defense Department.
Senior GOP senators, most of who have yet to signal their positions on the treaty, are also making it clear they don't support voting on New START during the lame duck session. They don't think there's enough time, and they still have substantive concerns about it.
One key issue is the dispute between the top Democratic and Republican senators of the Intelligence Committee, who are at odds over whether the National Intelligence Estimate provided to the committee gives enough assurance that the verification measures in the treaty can be properly enforced.
"Obviously the classified details are available to my colleagues in the secure reading room, but I can certainly share with you my conclusions. And I think by pushing the New START treaty, the administration is taking us down a very dangerous path," said committee ranking Republican Kit Bond (R-MO), speaking Monday on the radio show of Frank Gaffney, the founder, CEO, and president of the Center for Security Policy, a right-leaning think tank.
"I think the treaty is very weak on verification, especially compared to previous treaties like START and the INF treaty. And we would have much greater trouble determining whether Russia is cheating and given Russia's track record, that's a real problem," Bond said. "If we don't have a solid means of verifying them, it just makes no sense to trust them."
Bond says some specific issues he has with the verification mechanisms in the treaty include what he sees as the U.S. decision to grant Russia full access to its telemetry data, no right to on-sight monitoring of Russian facilities, and language that notes Russia's opposition to U.S. missile defense plans.
Bond is using the verification issue to argue for postponing a vote on New START until next year. Ironically, that will mean he won't get a vote, since he is retiring at the end of this session.
"I hope we only do the things we have to do in the lame duck [session]," Bond said. "I'm hoping they will put this off and consider it next year when people have a chance to look at it and people have time to debate it."
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) doesn't believe that the intelligence information provided to the committee is a problem. Moreover, she points out that without a treaty, there is no verification at all. In fact, verification has been shuttered since the old START treaty expired last December.
"I've read the National Intelligence Estimate very clearly," Feinstein told The Cable in an interview. "The overwhelming fact is that if START goes down, nothing is in place. If START goes down, everything that has been attempted by improving relations between our two countries takes an enormous setback."
"The issue in question is whether the treaty provides adequate verification. In my view, it does," she said.
Bond's concerns about the treaty are separate from concerns raised by Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) at the Sept. 16 hearing, which was almost derailed when Risch raised an undisclosed late-breaking intelligence concern. But that's not the problem that worries Bond.
"Risch raised a different piece of intelligence about something else," Kerry said, declining to go into specifics.
Regardless, the administration will have to make a choice whether to push hard for a vote in the lame duck session and risk alienating senators who are calling for more time, or let the vote slip until next year, when the makeup of the Senate, and therefore the politics of New START, may be very different.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.