A New START for a New Year?
December 20, 2010
This week, as most of us are finishing up year-end business or holiday shopping, the U.S. Senate may take the remaining votes on the new START treaty that limits U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons. The treaty, which was signed in April of this year, limits deployed strategic warheads to a level of 1,550 and limits delivery vehicles. This represents a modest reduction below the 1,700–2,200 deployed warheads allowed under the Moscow Treaty negotiated by the George W. Bush administration. The treaty does not cover nuclear weapons that are not deployed, tactical nuclear weapons, or missile defenses.
On Monday, senators will pore over classified data related to strategic nuclear weapons; on Tuesday, they may vote to limit debate (what is called a “cloture” vote); and then a final vote may come on Thursday, December 23. Two outcomes are possible: a two-thirds majority vote grants consent to ratify new START, or the treaty is pulled from consideration until next year. Given that Democrats control the Senate, the new START treaty will not be allowed to suffer the fate of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was rejected by the Senate in 1999.
Q1: Where are we in the process of consent for ratification?
A1: Senate committees held hearings through the summer, and Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), the majority leader, filed a motion to begin debate on the treaty and move into executive session last week (December 15), with a vote of 66 to 32. Reid only needed 50 votes for that motion. Nine Republican senators agreed to begin debate: John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Susan Collins (R-ME), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), George Voinovich (R-OH), Richard Lugar (R-IN), Scott Brown (R-MA), and Bob Bennett (R-UT). With few hours left in the 111th Congress, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) filed a motion late Sunday (December 19) for cloture. This is “the only procedure by which the Senate can vote to place a time limit on consideration of a bill or other matter, and thereby overcome a filibuster.” If 60 senators vote to invoke cloture, the Senate will consider the treaty for an additional 30 hours. Each senator is limited to two germane amendments and one hour of speaking time until all senators have taken a turn. START I was ratified after a cloture motion limited debate.
The Democrats will also seek to limit amendments to and conditions on the treaty, since anything requiring Russian approval would “kill” the treaty. Accordingly, Senator Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will seek to place any conditions in the resolution of ratification, which would not require Russian consent.
Q2: Where do the votes stand?
A2: On Sunday, Senators John Kyl (R-AZ) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said they would vote against the new START treaty. Although Senator Lindsay Graham stated he would not vote for new START until he had some assurances from Russia on missile defenses, he voted to allow debate to go forward.
Q3: Where do the issues stand?
A3: Republican objections to the treaty largely focus on perceived weaknesses in monitoring and an interpretation that the treaty could limit U.S. flexibility on missile defenses. The Senate will consider an amendment by Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) to increase the number of inspections. This is likely to be viewed as a “treaty killer” since it would require returning to negotiations with Russia. Several amendments that have been viewed as treaty killers have already been defeated on the floor of the Senate so far.
On missile defense, President Barack Obama sent a letter to the Senate on Sunday pledging to fully develop a missile defense system for Europe as part of his assurances to critics of the new START treaty that the treaty does not limit U.S. options. Senator John McCain, who has not indicated yet how he will vote on the treaty, has stated that U.S. flexibility in this area is a critical concern for him.
Sharon Squassoni is a senior fellow and director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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