By David M. Drucker
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) is planning to pass the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty out of his committee before the August recess, which could set up a bitter partisan floor battle over its ratification.
But Senate Republicans and the White House are hoping to reach detente on the thorny issue before it hits the floor, and in so doing, convince 67 Senators to come aboard to approve it.
Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and several of his GOP colleagues have threatened to sink START over broader concerns about President Barack Obama's nuclear weapons policy. But Kyl has been in negotiations with Vice President Joseph Biden to try to break the impasse.
Obama has asked the Senate to ratify the nuclear arms reduction pact with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev by year's end, and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) intends to hold a floor vote by then. Meanwhile, the political tug of war over the treaty has continued to play out in committee hearings and on the opinion pages of major newspapers.
"New Start ... is more than a stand-alone treaty: It is an important element of Mr. Obama's overall plan for maintaining a credible U.S. nuclear capability," Kyl wrote in an opinion piece published in Thursday's Wall Street Journal. "If the Obama administration was clearly articulating that our nuclear posture is going to be strong and properly resourced, most senators will likely view the treaty as relatively benign. But right now many are wary of ratifying it because the Obama administration is sending mixed signals on this serious issue."
Earlier in the week, in an opinion piece of his own in the Washington Post, Kerry made the case for ratification, attempting to pick apart several of the GOP criticisms. This particular missive was directed as a critique of the START offered by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a GOP presidential candidate in 2008 who is widely expected to run again in 2012.
"New START will not constrain our ability to defend ourselves," Kerry wrote. "On the contrary, it will improve our national security by reducing the number of nuclear weapons held by the United States and Russia, and by improving relations with our old adversary. Ratification will also show the international community that we are honoring our commitments on nonproliferation."
Kerry has held 10 hearings on START thus far. On Wednesday, he is scheduled to conduct a closed-door hearing on both the National Intelligence Estimate and the State Department's verification report. On Thursday, Kerry is expected to hold a hearing on nuclear weapons modernization -- a key concern of Kyl and other START skeptics -- with the directors of Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national laboratories.
START is expected to clear the Foreign Relations Committee, given the panel's Democratic majority. Most Democrats support its ratification, most Republicans are opposed -- at least for now. The Obama administration considers the treaty -- struck with Medvedev in April -- to be a major foreign policy success.
Kyl, Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) have all expressed concern about the Obama administration's broader nuclear weapons policy. Their threats to oppose START appear rooted as much in their dissatisfaction with other aspects of Obama's nuclear weapons strategy, and they are using the ratification process to extract concessions.
Kyl, who in 1998 led a successful effort to block ratification of a nuclear test ban treaty under then-President Bill Clinton, is leading the GOP opposition. The potential political trouble for the new START appears to stem from changes Obama made to U.S. nuclear weapons policy in the nuclear policy review, which calls for narrowing the conditions under which the U.S. would employ nuclear weapons.
Republican critics, and Lieberman, have also taken issue with what they believe is the administration's failure to adequately follow through with efforts to modernize existing nuclear weapons stockpiles. Republicans contend that the administration's proposed 2011 budget doesn't adequately fund the modernization, and they have suggested that START could be delayed as a result.
However, as Kyl made clear in his Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Republicans also have problems with the language of the treaty itself. He cited three main concerns: possible inadequacies with the verification provisions, a "failure" to address Russia's large, tactical nuclear weapons arsenal, and its linkage of U.S. missile defense capabilities to arms reduction.
"The administration accepted treaty language that will help the Russians argue that the U.S. should cut back development of defenses against ballistic missiles," Kyl wrote. "This is worrisome less because of the explicit limitations on missile defense than because Mr. Obama has repeatedly shown weak support for U.S. missile defense."
Kerry vehemently disagreed, calling a complete "myth" the suggestion that START would hamper U.S. missile defense capabilities.
"The treaty will have no impact on our ability to build ballistic missile defenses against Iran, North Korea or other threats from other regions," Kerry wrote in the Washington Post. "The Obama administration is free to proceed with missile defense plans it announced last year."