Supporters of the New Start treaty staved off an attempt by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and John Barrasso (R-WY) to attach a "treaty killing" amendment on the Senate floor Saturday afternoon. Next up is an amendment by Sen. James Risch (R-ID) on linkage between strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.
The McCain-Barrasso amendment would have removed language from the treaty's preamble that acknowledged the relationship between offensive and defensive nuclear capabilities. They argued the language could constrain U.S. missile defense plans. However, Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Carl Levin (D-MI) maintained that the language stated an obvious fact and, in any case, was not legally binding. The amendment failed 37 to 59.
"The Russian government could use the treaty in its current form as a tool to place political pressure on the U.S. to limit its missile defense system," said McCain.
"All it does is to state a truism, a fact, a reality. There is a relationship between strategic offensive and defensive capabilities," said Kerry.
Kerry succeeded in characterizing the amendment as a "treaty killer," because any changes to the treaty or the preamble would require a new round of negotiations with the Russians.
"Make no mistake, this becomes a treaty killer," Kerry said. "Can we deal with this issue without it becoming a treaty killer? Yes. We've already dealt with it. It's in the resolution of ratification."
Kerry was referring to the Senate's resolution of ratification, which will be the subject of another debate after the treaty itself is considered. The resolution of ratification, which was primarily authored by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), expresses the Senate's opinion on the meaning of the treaty, and can be amended without stopping the treaty from going into effect right away. It is legally binding but does not require the treaty to be renegotiated with Russia because it simply gives the Senate's views on the pact.
As part of the debate, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) read quotes on the Senate floor from two separate articles that appeared on the Foreign Policy website, including one by FP Passport editor Joshua Keating and another by your humble Cable guy, and entered them into the Congressional Record. (Thanks Sen. Kyl!)
Before the Senate gives an up or down vote on New START, treaty supporters will have to deal with at least one more "treaty killer" amendment. The next one deals with the issue of tactical nuclear weapons and is being brought to the floor by Risch.
Risch, a member of the Foreign Relations committee, has been active on New START and almost derailed the committee consideration of the treaty over an undisclosed intelligence issue. His amendment would insert the following paragraph into the treaty's preamble:
Acknowledging there is an interrelationship between non-strategic and strategic offensive arms, that as the number of strategic offensive arms is reduced this relationship becomes more pronounced and requires an even greater need for transparency and accountability, and that the disparity between the Parties' arsenals could undermine predictability and stability.
Risch's office circulated a fact sheet about the amendment that was also endorsed by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX), James Inhofe (R-OK), and George Lemieux (R-FL), which explains the senators' concern that tactical nuclear weapons are not covered by the treaty, only strategic nuclear weapons.
"This amendment seeks to correct this flaw in the treaty, by acknowledging the interrelationship between offensive non-strategic (tactical nuclear) weapons and strategic range weapons," the fact sheet reads. "It also calls for increased transparency and accountability of these weapons and recognizes that these weapons can undermine stability."
The GOP senators also feel that the administration is misrepresenting the findings of the Perry-Schlesinger Congressional Strategic Posture Commission by saying that the commission recommended deferring negotiations on tactical nukes. Here's what former Defense Secretary William Perry said about the issue in his Senate testimony in April.
"The focus of this treaty is on deployed warheads and it does not attempt to count or control non-deployed warheads. This continues in the tradition of prior arms control treaties. I would hope to see non-deployed and tactical systems included in future negotiations, but the absence of these systems should not detract from the merits of this treaty and the further advances in arms control which it represents."
Many Senators believe that as the Perry-Schlesinger report points out in multiple places that there is an interrelationship between tactical and strategic weapons. Other senators feel Obama removed tactical nukes from the negotiating table so quickly in the summer of 2009 that he removed a point of leverage over the Russians.
The Obama administration has said that it would like to pursue reductions in tactical weapons with Russia in a future arms control treaty, what some insiders call the "follow on to the follow on." But considering how difficult it has been finishing New START, there's no telling when that might happen.
The Risch amendment is expected to receive a vote on the Senate floor Sunday afternoon. As for the final vote on the treaty? Nobody knows when that might occur. It depends on how many of the rumored 50 to 70 amendments the GOP has been preparing will actually reach the floor.
Kerry has said he will cut off debate and call for the final vote when he believes the Republicans are just attempting to stall the treaty's progress. McCain told him he can't say how long it will take to air all the GOP concerns.
"We will not have a time agreement on this side until all members have had a chance to express their views on this issue," McCain said on the floor, adding, "I promise I'm not trying to just drag this out."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.