President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in Prague in April.
President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in Prague in April. YURI KADOBNOV/AFP
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is considering the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, with a vote likely in mid-September. The new START treaty was negotiated with Russia after the first treaty expired late last year.
The new START treaty calls for significant reductions in the deployed nuclear weapons of both countries. But it may have a hard time getting the 67 votes in the Senate required to ratify any treaty.
The treaty was signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April. Now it's up to the Senate. There have been nearly 20 hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations, Armed Services and Intelligence Committees.
All the while, no treaty and no verification mechanisms are in place to manage the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States.
Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for arms control, spoke recently at a public forum at the State Department.
"Since the original START treaty expired last December we have nothing. We have no transparency into Russia's strategic nuclear forces, we have no agreement to work cooperatively to make sure that either side is not worried about a breakout possibility," Tauscher said.
The centerpiece of the new START treaty is the reduction of each side's deployed nuclear forces to 1,550 warheads, down from roughly 2,200 on each side today.
These are still enormous nuclear arsenals, but among Republicans in the Senate, many remain unconvinced.
The conservatives argue that the new START would hamper U.S. plans to build missile defense systems. Supporters say that's not true.
Critics also say the treaty does not deal with thousands of tactical — or smaller battlefield — nuclear weapons.
That is true by design, supporters of the treaty say. It is a strategic nuclear weapons treaty. If it is not ratified, the U.S. and Russia will never get to the problem of tactical weapons, they say.
Finally, say the critics, the treaty gets in the way of modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Steven Pifer, an expert on arms control at the Brookings Institution, says the modernization argument is also weak.
"There's nothing in the treaty there that limits our ability to modernize our strategic forces or our nuclear weapons complex. In fact it specifically says, modernization is allowed. So whether we decide to modernize or not, that's our choice, with or without the treaty," Pifer says.
Nevertheless, only one Republican senator, Richard Lugar of Indiana, is on the record now in favor of new START. The treaty needs 67 votes, so assuming all Democrats and the Senate's two independent members support it, it still needs eight Republicans — a very hard number to come by these days in the highly partisan body.
Supporters Remain Optimistic
Nevertheless, supporters of the treaty, such as Daryl Kimball, the director of the Arms Control Association, remain optimistic.
"It can be and it will be ratified. The new START treaty is so clearly, overwhelmingly in the United States national security interest, I find it difficult to believe that Republicans [and] Democrats are going to vote this treaty down," Kimball says.
Some prominent former Republican officials have testified in its favor. They include former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, James Baker and George Shultz, as well as many senior retired military officers who had responsibility for U.S. strategic nuclear forces in the past.
Richard Burt, who helped negotiate the first START treaty and who worked in the Reagan administration, is greatly concerned about the consequences if new START is not ratified.
"The failure to ratify this treaty would I think be a true calamity. It would end the administration's policy of reset with Russia," Burt says. "I think the Russians would conclude it's hard to do business with the United States. I think it would really raise questions in both friendly and unfriendly capitals around the world about the coherence of American foreign policy."
If the Foreign Relations Committee votes in favor as expected, the Senate leadership will have to find the time for a debate by the full Senate. With the upcoming November elections looming, it's not clear whether that will take place before the election or afterward.