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White House Pushes START Ratification Before New Congress Arrives

  • Richard Solash

U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev signed the new START treaty in Prague on April 8. But will it be ratified?

U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev signed the new START treaty in Prague on April 8. But will it be ratified?

On November 3, the day after the balance of power in Congress swung toward the Republican Party, the U.S. State Department issued the latest in a series of fact sheets and statements on the virtues of the new START treaty with Russia and the reasons the United States needs it.

While this wasn't the first time the Obama administration had made its case for ratification of the major arms-control treaty that Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signed in Prague last April, this particular release seemed to carry a tone of impatience.

Headlined, "The New START Treaty: It's Time for the Senate to Vote," the press release says that "key questions have been answered," and tells senators that they are -- or should be -- "prepared and ready" to ratify the nuclear nonproliferation agreement after "18 hearings, dozens of briefings and meetings, answers to over 900 questions for the record, and hundreds of pages of reports, analysis and testimony."

This week, echoing earlier calls by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts), Obama lent his own voice to the call for ratifying the treaty -- not when the new Congress convenes in January, but during the so-called "lame-duck session" this fall, when his Democratic Party still holds a large majority in the Senate.

The November 2 election gave the Republicans control of the House of Representatives, but in the Senate, the Democrats kept their majority -- although a slimmer one than before. The new balance of power is 53 Democrats to 46 Republicans, with votes for one seat still being tallied. Sixty-seven votes are needed to ratify the treaty.

Nonpartisan Issue?

In remarks after his weekly cabinet meeting on November 4, Obama said, "This is not a traditionally Democratic or Republican issue but rather a[n] issue of American national security."

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen made the same argument.

"Is the United States better off with a strategic arms agreement with the Russians or without it? The answer for successive presidents of both parties has always been 'with an agreement,'" Mullen said.

"The U.S. Senate has always agreed, approving each treaty by lopsided, bipartisan margins. The same answer holds true for new START. The U.S. is better off with this treaty than without it, and I am confident it is the right agreement for today and for the future."

Obama said ratification would "send a strong signal to Russia that we are serious about reducing nuclear arsenals." And he invoked the international community's concern about Iran's nuclear program, saying, "We've made great progress when it comes to sending a message to Iran that they are isolated internationally, in part because people have seen that we are serious about taking our responsibilities when it comes to nonproliferation, and that has to continue."

Problems With Ratification

The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which replaces its 1991 predecessor, cuts each country's stockpile of deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 -- a reduction of nearly one-third -- and is accompanied by a verification regime. It has been endorsed by several current and former U.S. national-security advisers and military commanders.

But many Republicans say that the treaty's acknowledgment of an "interrelationship" between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms amounts to setting limits on the planned U.S. missile-shield system, which Russia opposes. Some also question whether the treaty's verification procedures are strong enough.

At a September 16 meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where senators voted to send the treaty to the floor for a vote, Senator James Risch (Republican, Idaho) raised an objection based on a classified U.S. intelligence report that reportedly described Russian cheating on past arms-control agreements.

Despite the objection, the treaty was approved by a 14-4 margin, including three Republican "yes" votes.

When it failed to come up for a Senate vote before Congress recessed for the fall campaign season, Democrats used the extra time to try to round up enough Republican votes for passage.

But Secretary of State Clinton kept the pressure on, telling an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in September that the absence of a ratified arms-control treaty between the two countries damages U.S. national security.

"There is an urgency to ratify this treaty because we currently lack verification measures with Russia which only hurts our national security interests," Clinton said.

Doubts In Moscow

The Obama administration isn't the only impatient party in the ratification waiting game -- Moscow has also begun questioning the delay.

Adhering to early pledges from both Moscow and Washington to coordinate their legislative timetables, the Russian Duma has also not yet held a ratification vote.

But on November 3, the Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee withdrew its recommendation to ratify the treaty.

Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov pointed to Washington, saying, "If the 'lame-duck' senators from the old [Congress] cannot do this in the next weeks, then the chances of ratification in the new Senate will be radically lower than they were until now."

He added that without quick ratification, "it will be much more difficult for President Obama to conduct his foreign policy, termed a 'reset' as far as relations with Russia go."

It was an echo of comments made by President Medvedev just after the treaty was finalized: "If there is no ratification," he said, "that means we have returned to the Soviet times when such treaties were not ratified."

Kosachyov also expressed concern at the number of amendments that have been added to the U.S. version of treaty to assuage Republican doubts, including an explicit statement that the United States maintains the option to proceed with its planned missile-defense system.

Given such changes, he said, Moscow should not only coordinate the timing of ratification, but also reconcile both versions of the agreement.