GOP Wary of Nuclear Treaty

Posted April 9, 2010 at 5:29pm

Senate Republicans say they are willing to block ratification of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that President Barack Obama signed with Russia unless the administration follows through with key policy concessions.

The White House is expected to formally submit the nuclear weapons reduction treaty to the Senate in early May, and Obama wants the document ratified by year’s end. But ratification requires 67 votes, and Senate Republicans and Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) have vowed to oppose the treaty unless the administration proposes adequate plans to modernize the nation’s existing nuclear weapons arsenal.

Even if the entire Senate Democratic Conference backs START, eight Republicans would have to support it for ratification.

“The president has to put into place a plan to modernize our nuclear weapons. Until that plan is presented, he won’t see support for the treaty,” a Republican Senate aide said.

Senate Republicans — and Lieberman — have additional concerns, including the details of the treaty itself and aspects of the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review. The NPR calls for narrowing the conditions under which the U.S. would use nuclear weapons, which drew negative reactions from several Republicans.

“The Obama administration will need to meet three requirements if it expects favorable consideration of the START follow-on treaty,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a prepared statement. “The Senate will assess whether or not the agreement is verifiable, whether it reduces our nation’s ability to defend itself and our allies from the threat of nuclear armed missiles, and whether or not this administration is committed to preserving our own nuclear triad.”

Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the START document Thursday in Prague, and administration officials have begun briefing Senators on the particulars of the treaty. Brian McKeon, who works with the National Security Council under the Office of the Vice President and who is a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chief counsel, is heading the White House effort to ratify the treaty.

[IMGCAP(1)]White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs reiterated last week that prior arms control treaties have been ratified with huge bipartisan majorities. But he hedged when asked whether he thought the Senate would be able to ratify the treaty before the August recess, saying he anticipates a fight with the Republicans.

“We are hopeful that reducing the threat of nuclear weapons remains a priority for both parties,” Gibbs said Thursday. “We will spend a lot of time and our team will spend a lot of time meeting with individual Senators and individual Senators’ staffs over the next many months to make this happen.”

Although the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees are expected to hold hearings on START, Foreign Relations has jurisdiction, and the panel must a approve a resolution of “advice and consent” before the treaty can proceed to the floor for a vote.

Foreign Relations Committee spokesman Frederick Jones said Friday that Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) would not convene hearings on the treaty until the White House submits it for review, although he said informational panels on arms control might proceed this month. Jones didn’t comment on the possibility of a protracted political fight. “I don’t think we’re in a position to speculate,” he said.

Democrats appear supportive of START, and key Senators have urged quick, bipartisan support. Kerry said in a statement that START is “too important to delay,” and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) warned against “playing politics” with it. Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also has offered words of support for the treaty.

However, Republican sources said the minority is prepared to battle Obama and the Democrats over national security and willing to stand in the way of START’s ratification. The midterm elections are less than seven months away, and the GOP believes it holds the high ground on the substance of its demands.

“National security is a serious issue on the minds of a lot of people,” a senior Republican Senate aide said. “There’s no question jobs and the economy are priorities. But national security is no less a priority.”

Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the GOP point man on the issue, said in a television interview late last week that the administration must comply with language in the defense reauthorization law signed last year calling for a plan to modernize the nation’s existing nuclear weapons stockpile. The full Republican Conference and Lieberman told Obama of this condition for ratification in a December letter.

Kyl, expressing sentiments shared by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), also said in the interview that he was concerned about the treaty’s potential constraints on the ability of the U.S. to pursue missile defense technology. Should Kyl lead a concerted Republican effort to defeat START, it would not be the first time. In the 1990s, Kyl helped kill the effort to ratify a nuclear weapons test ban treaty signed by President Bill Clinton.

“While we were initially advised that the only reference to missile defense was in the preamble to the treaty, we now find that there are other references to missile defense, some of which could limit U.S. actions,” Kyl and McCain said in a joint statement issued Thursday. “Whatever our ultimate conclusions on the START follow-on treaty, we continue to believe it will be difficult for it to pass the Senate without the fully funded robust nuclear weapons modernization program.”

Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.