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As "New START" Goes to Senate Floor, Panel Strikes Compromise on Missile Defense
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday passed a Republican-drafted ratification resolution in favor of the "New START" nuclear arms control agreement on a 14-4 vote, but only after lawmakers hammered out a fresh compromise on missile defense (see GSN, Sept. 16).
"We hope this can get to the full Senate as rapidly as possible," committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said after the panel approved the U.S.-Russian pact. "It's our hope that can happen quickly, before the end of the year, and we will work to try to make that happen."
With a Democratic majority sitting on the 19-member panel, its approval of New START was never in doubt. Kerry won backing for the treaty from all 10 other Democrats and also garnered support from three committee Republicans: Senators Richard Lugar (Ind.), Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.).
Republicans voting "no" on the ratification resolution were: Senators Jim Risch (Idaho); John Barrasso (Wyo.); Roger Wicker (Miss.); and James Inhofe (Okla.).
The White House has teamed with Kerry to cultivate as many Republican votes on the Senate floor as possible, with the aim of assuring the two-thirds majority required for ratification.
That effort last month prompted Kerry to delay the committee vote, allowing additional time for undeclared members to further review the treaty text and supporting documents (see GSN, Aug. 4). The Obama administration answered hundreds of questions from lawmakers and sent more than 20 officials to testify at a dozen hearings to make the case for the agreement.
Under New START, signed by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, the two sides agree to reduce their deployed strategic nuclear warheads to a level of 1,550. Under a prior treaty, Washington and Moscow had previously moved to cap warheads at 2,200 by the end of 2012.
The New START agreement also would limit strategic delivery vehicles to 700, with an additional 100 allowed in reserve. The accord replaces the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expired Dec. 5 of last year.
The Democratic effort to sway fence-sitters -- buoyed by months of New START support from Lugar, the panel's ranking member -- continued even as what was billed as a one-hour committee session yesterday stretched into its third hour, punctuated by brief recesses for unrelated votes on the Senate floor.
Senators yesterday offered more than a dozen amendments to Lugar's draft of the resolution, which the committee opted to use in place of an earlier version authored by Kerry. Of the amendments submitted, just two passed committee and the remainder were either voted down or withdrawn.
DeMint on Missile Defense
Missile defense has become a hot-button issue associated with the New START agreement, with Republicans pushing to ensure the treaty does not limit U.S. defenses in any meaningful way and the Obama administration insisting that it simply does not. Meanwhile, Russia has issued a unilateral statement saying that any substantial expansion of Washington's missile shield could trigger Moscow's withdrawal from the accord.
Midway through yesterday's deliberations, an amendment sponsored by Senator Jim DeMint drew some spirited debate. The South Carolina Republican wanted the resolution -- which already asserted that the New START agreement would pose no significant limitations on U.S. missile defense plans -- to include additional text assuring that even a more ambitious defensive shield would be allowable under the pact.
His draft wording stated that the U.S. government has "a paramount obligation" to protect its citizens against nuclear attack, and that "policies based on 'mutually assured destruction' or intentional vulnerability are contrary to this obligation and therefore unacceptable over the long term."
DeMint was referring to the virtual standoff between nuclear adversaries, such as the United States and Russia, in which each of the atomic arsenals counters the other in a deterrence posture. His proposed amendment went on to "commit" the United States to constructing a "layered missile defense system capable of countering missiles of all ranges."
The wording ran counter to U.S. policy -- embraced by Democratic and Republican presidents over more than a decade -- to limit national missile defense to a system capable of absorbing an attack from just a small number of missiles, such as an accidental launch from Russia or a limited strike from North Korea.
DeMint insisted that anything short of a nearly impenetrable shield that could protect the nation from an all-out Russian attack is ultimately unacceptable, and he objected to the New START agreement's formula for offensive-missile parity between Washington and Moscow.
"I think what this amendment says is what all of us are saying, that this treaty does not limit our ability and that we will develop a defense system, as we [build] capability over time, to defend our people against Russian attacks," DeMint said.
Kerry said it has become a widely accepted expert view that a full-scale U.S. defensive shield would not only be cost-prohibitive, but also could prompt Russia to build more offensive missiles to overwhelm and break through Washington's system. DeMint would hear nothing of it, though.
"This is a clarifying moment here," he said. "The strategy of this administration and this majority is apparently a continuation of mutual assured destruction, which in my mind is a direct violation to our constitutional oath of office to protect and defend the people of the United States.
Though GOP treaty-supporters Corker and Isakson praised DeMint's amendment, committee Democrats unleashed a biting rejoinder to the South Carolina senator's apparent doubts about their national security bona fides.
"Moving forward with this treaty is paramount in order to protect and defend the people of this nation," said Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.). "I think the DeMint amendment is not helpful and I'm going to vote against it."
"No president of either party has advocated a massive missile defense system that would provoke Russia since before the Cold War [ended]," said Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).
"I just want to ask you, Senator DeMint," she said. "Are you suggesting that if we vote against your amendment, that we in some way are not defending this country, and don't believe that we should defend this country against our enemies? Because if that's what you're suggesting, senator, then I personally resent that."
"It's not my intent to offend anyone," DeMint responded, "but to try to make sure that there is an understanding that this START agreement does not defend the people of the United States."
Despite the acrimony, committee members agreed to seek consensus on the DeMint amendment. However, that was only after Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) defected from party unity in supporting of the proposed missile defense text. He noted that he had been a Reagan administration defense leader who endorsed building a robust shield.
Kerry asked DeMint whether he would be willing to vote in favor of New START if the committee could agree on some wording changes to his amendment, a question that elicited laughter from the audience.
"I very well could," said DeMint, surprising many in the room. "It's a fair question."
A recess in the hearing quickly followed, allowing senators to confer across the aisle. A number of senior administration officials joined them behind closed doors, including chief treaty negotiator Rose Gottemoeller, Defense Department policy deputy James Miller, and Ted Warner, the defense secretary's representative at the New START talks.
Upon re-emerging, Kerry announced they had worked out a bipartisan deal with DeMint. However, when it came time to vote on his amendment, the South Carolina Republican was notably absent from the room.
"Anybody have any idea where Senator DeMint is?" asked Kerry, who was then assured by colleagues that the vote could proceed without him.
The committee went on to accept the missile defense amendment in a unanimous voice vote. DeMint also failed to return before the New START won final committee passage, leaving in question whether he will throw his support behind the treaty.
What allowed for the Democrats' dramatic shift on the DeMint amendment?
Though the new wording was not released, "essentially [the amendment] is no longer taking the form of an understanding, but it is a declaration," Kerry told reporters after the committee adjourned. "There were [also] some key language changes that we think better frames the transformation that we're all looking for, away from mutual assured destruction [and] towards something that doesn't rely on the destruction of our population to protect us."
Additionally, "the linkages of strategic defense to strategic offense [were] clarified in a way that I think satisfies that we're not threatening anybody with what we may or may not do," explained the panel chairman, noting that the amended resolution text would be distributed soon.
The new wording "commits us to continue to develop the ability to be able to protect our people and to have a robust missile defense system," Kerry said. "Most of us feel that Senator Lugar's language that he offered did that sufficiently. We wanted to make sure that this was in keeping with that language, and I think we came up with a compromise where everybody was comfortable that it didn't do violence to that, but it did express the views that Senator DeMint hoped to express."
The compromise might prove pivotal in landing the floor votes of some conservative Republicans -- who have hammered the administration for months on their missile defense concerns -- or at least that is the Democratic hope.
"I think we can find common ground in that, and we did," Kerry said.
The other approved amendment, sponsored by Risch, addresses delivery system modernization in text negotiated by senators from both parties. Kerry urged committee members to vote for the measure, and it passed in a unanimous voice vote.
The legislation now moves to the Senate floor, though it remains unclear when the chamber will agree to allot time for debate and a tally. The ratification language must pass the Senate by at least 67 votes, as well as win approval by the Russian legislature, before entering into force.
"I personally believe we will have the votes to ratify this," Kerry told reporters yesterday. He called the 14-4 bipartisan tally "a very significant vote" and said "it augurs very well for the Senate debate as a whole."
All eyes are now on Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who said in a July 8 essay that most of his colleagues would find the agreement "relatively benign." However, he also raised questions about the treaty's verification provisions; implications for missile defense and conventional "prompt global strike" systems; and prospects for Obama administration funding for nuclear-weapon maintenance and facilities.
A spokesman for Kyl told the "PBS NewsHour" this week that the senator -- a minority whip who is widely seen as carving out a national security leadership role in the chamber apart from Lugar's more moderate stance -- would not reveal his position on New START ratification until after the committee vote.
Early rancor over the Lugar version and the amendments subsequently adopted by committee could actually help the prospects for treaty ratification, according to one issue expert.
"If Kerry is not totally happy with the Lugar resolution, if the administration is uncomfortable with parts of the Lugar resolution, and if the arms control community is unhappy with parts of the Lugar resolution as well, it makes it easier for Republications to say they have their pound of flesh," said John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World. "Anything reasonable that encourages Republicans to vote for ratification is a positive step forward."
Once it goes to debate on the Senate floor, lawmakers might propose attaching additional text changes to the resolution (see GSN, July 27).
"As far as I'm concerned, what will get us 67 votes that does not the constrain the ability for us to have the treaty to go forward -- and doesn't cause problems for the Russians as they ratify it -- I assume is something we could go along with," Ellen Tauscher, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said at a Sept. 10 roundtable discussion with reporters.
In a White House conference call with journalists on Tuesday, administration officials said they hope the chamber keeps any new language in the resolution to a minimum.
"What we would clearly prefer is that we have a relatively clean resolution of support for the treaty," said Miller, the Pentagon's principal deputy undersecretary for policy. "We understand the Senate's issues and concerns with respect to missile defense and conventional prompt global strike, and investment as well."
Some Republicans have questioned whether the agreement limits the Defense Department's ability to deploy conventionally armed strategic delivery systems that could quickly strike targets anywhere around the world, but the Pentagon has said the accord does not tie its hands (see GSN, March 19).
Speaking Tuesday, Tauscher said any such language attached to a ratification resolution should remain consistent with treaty provisions so that the pact does not have to be renegotiated with Moscow.
An important factor in ultimately bringing the treaty into force is "how the Russians react" to any new language the Senate adds to the ratification legislation, she said during the telephone press conference. "It's very important that we have a clean resolution so that there are no ramifications for how the Russians manage their ratification process," Tauscher said.
Republican panel member Risch revealed yesterday that the Obama administration had just briefed lawmakers on a classified intelligence matter that he found disturbing enough to inhibit his vote in favor of New START.
"Yesterday the intelligence community brought to us some very serious information that directly affects what we're doing here, not only the actual details of this but actually whether or not we should debate going forward with this," Risch said.
Kerry called it "inappropriate" to discuss the sensitive matter in public, and none of the senators disclosed the nature or topic of the particular intelligence. Obama administration officials similarly refused to discuss the matter, though some played down the relevance of the intelligence to the debate over New START.
"The conclusion of the intelligence community is that it in no way alters their judgment, already submitted to this committee, with respect to the START treaty and the impact of the START treaty," Kerry said. "It has no impact, in their judgment."
Had Kerry believed the information was relevant to New START, "we would not have proceeded today," he said. However, the Massachusetts senator did say the issue would be "thoroughly further vetted" before the accord goes to the Senate floor for debate.
Risch remained dissatisfied.
"I find the information particularly troubling ... as it affects the details of what we're doing here today," he said, differing with Kerry's description of the intelligence community view of the matter's relevance to New START.
Kerry later told reporters there was "no need to" divulge any details of the intelligence issue, with officials refusing to say even whether it pertained to Moscow.
"I am absolutely convinced it will not alter our sense of direction with respect to this treaty," he said.
The head of the Energy Department's nuclear weapons agency, Thomas D'Agostino, insisted during the telephone Q&A; this week that an Obama administration pledge this year to spend an additional $10 billion on warhead upgrades over the next 10 years should meet his needs well. He said he is committed to "not throw more money at this" but spend "in a way that is fiscally prudent and is executable."
The Lugar version of the ratification resolution "clearly commits the Senate and the administration to support the plan the administration put forward, which is a substantial increase in budgets for the weapons complex and warhead refurbishment," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
The projected $80 billion over the next decade exceeds "the levels put forward by the Bush administration, which Senator Corker and Senator Kyl seemed perfectly happy with at the time," Kimball added in a Wednesday interview. "The resolution and this Congress simply cannot bind future Congresses to spend even more, especially if there is no basis in fact to justify more spending."
Still, some Republicans have complained that much of the projected budget for nuclear modernization over the next decade appears in the later years, and they have called for higher expenditures on the front end.
D'Agostino laid the groundwork for a possible nod to these concerns, as he would not to rule out the notion that funding plans might change in coming years. However, he said last week that any future budget boosts would materialize only as a better understanding of warhead overhaul and maintenance projects is developed, and not because of any political deals made on Capitol Hill.
"Any change that is made is made based on the needs of the program," he said at the media roundtable last week. "That always takes into consideration the latest [programmatic] information -- not what I would call information on, 'well, if you give us this, we'll give you that' -- but information based on what does the program need to do its job."
"He's saying, look, we've put in more money and if we need more, we'll request it," Isaacs told Global Security Newswire. "He's not saying, if you [in Congress] put in more money, we won't take it."
Kimball said that even if the Obama administration wanted to win Republican votes by committing to higher expenditures for nuclear modernization and infrastructure, it would be more of a gesture than a guarantee, simply because of how U.S. government spending works.
"There isn't any choice. You can't appropriate fiscal year 2013 dollars in fiscal year 2011," he said. "If there are adjustments in the future up or down, future administrations will request those budgets and Congress will decide."
Floor Vote Timing
Kerry said yesterday that he had discussed with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) the possibility of holding a floor debate and vote on New START prior to the Nov. 2 elections. Such timing might "conceivably" work out, according to Kerry.
"The better chance is that it will happen in the very near term as we get beyond the election, in the lame-duck session," the chairman said.
The lame-duck session is tentatively slated for Nov. 15-19.
Kerry told Foreign Policy earlier this week there would not be enough time to vote on the New START agreement before the chamber recesses in early October, in the run-up to the midterm elections. He noted that a Senate floor debate during a lame-duck session before year's end might help avoid "any election atmospherics."
The debate and vote would require just three days or less, according to Kerry, but ratification might yet be further delayed into a new Congress early next year if the resolution becomes complicated by disagreements over language.
"We're very worried about that," said Isaacs, noting widespread concern among Democrats that ratification might be imperiled if the Republicans pick up more votes in the Senate, as widely expected, and the vote is pushed to 2011.
The Senate committee chairman's remarks offered earlier this week prompted some immediate pushback from administration officials, who have been trying to generate a sense of growing urgency to get the pact approved. Tauscher and others have said they are eager to see the agreement enter into force soon because its verification provisions would allow renewed insight into Russian strategic weapon development and deployment activities.
The accord includes provisions for on-site inspections of deployed weapons and the exchange of data about missile tests, among other measures.
"Every day that we don't have the START treaty ratified is a day that we do not have any strategic view into the Russian forces," Tauscher told reporters on Tuesday. "So I think that once again, the Senate has to do their will in order for this to be ratified."
Miller struck a similar tack.
"Earlier is clearly better," he said, noting "it's been since Dec. 5" that U.S. and Russian verification provisions were suspended when the prior START agreement lapsed. "But we understand that the Senate has to act according to its own time lines and needs to have all its questions answered and other issues dealt with."
Behind the scenes, Kerry is likely to be working with Lugar, Kyl, Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to hash out a unanimous consent agreement about when the treaty can be brought to the floor, said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
To Isaacs, the "only way around" delaying a vote until the new Congress goes into session in 2011 is "finding time between now and December, working out a unanimous consent agreement for floor time with McConnell and Kyl."
Sokolski expressed surprise that the administration did not work earlier to ensure smoother political sailing for the treaty, given that the anticipated reductions are relatively modest and the terms of the pact are similar to prior agreements.
"The handling of congressional relations has been a hiccup from the start," he said in an interview. "This thing should have passed 100-0 back in December, just on verification," Sokolski said, adding that the new wording has given Obama's political opposition an opening for criticism.
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