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New START Heads for Ratification Vote

Author: Toni Johnson
Updated: December 22, 2010

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The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), a nuclear reduction agreement with Russia, is reportedly headed for almost certain final approval (NYT) today. Eleven Republican senators and all Democratic senators appeared to support the treaty. Senate approval would clear the way for future talks with Russia and further arms reductions. President Obama pledged to focus future talks (WSJ) on curbing thousands of smaller, tactical nuclear weapons, conventional forces and the countries' remaining strategic arsenal. Although those issues are likely to face stronger pushback from Russia and the United States, START's ratification could also lend new momentum to nuclear nonproliferation efforts for countries like Iran and North Korea (NPR).

Still, the treaty, a centerpiece of President Obama's nonproliferation policy, remains subject of much partisan debate. Democrats have accused Republicans of stalling the treaty to thwart the president's agenda. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Republican lawmakers had raised legitimate issues that have been answered, and any "objections at this point are more about politics than substance." Republicans countered that they should be allowed to thoroughly debate ratification (Politico).

More than seventy Republican amendments have been filed aimed at altering the treaty text and preamble. In Senate floor action, treaty backers garnered more than enough votes to defeat several Republican amendments. And since senators successfully voted to limit debate further, it limits the number of amendments that can be offered going forward. Russian officials have warned against such amendments, saying the treaty cannot be reopened (Moscow Times). Senate negotiations on amendments are focused on the resolution (Politico) of ratification—such as reiterating a commitment to missile defense—which would not alter the language of the treaty. Such language could strengthen the treaty's position with some GOP holdouts.

The agreement, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 ICBM missiles, and provides mechanisms for verification and monitoring. Opponents say the agreement provides too many concessions to Russia and weakens U.S. ability to employ missile defense technology, which the White House and other backers dispute. The defeated Republican amendments would have tripled the number of inspections under the treaty, upped the number of missiles deployed to 720, and reopened treaty negotiations within a year.

Republican opposition to the treaty has surprised many in the U.S. foreign policy community. The current version has the backing of six Republican former secretaries of states. Treaty supporters note that since the original treaty expired twelve months ago, the United States has been barred from monitoring Russia's nuclear arsenal.

The GOP has also expressed worry that the administration is moving forward on the treaty without adequately providing for nuclear modernization (National Journal). However in a letter to the Senate on Monday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen argued that the administration's $85 billion commitment to modernization over the next decade "attests to the importance being placed on nuclear deterrence and the investments required to sustain it -- especially given the country's present fiscal challenges."

Analysis:

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the treaty should be ratified since it reinstates on-site verification of Russian nuclear forces, but senators should make it clear to Moscow that they don't see it as limiting U.S. missile defenses.

In this open letter, five other former secretaries of state make a Republican case for ratification of the New START (WashPost).

Stanley Weiss, in Daily Beast, notes that Republicans debating the first arms control agreement between Russia and the United States in 1987 genuinely believed it would weaken U.S. security, while "the new START debate seems to be a clash between principles and politics."

In a New York Times blog, Robert Wright looks at why there is divergence between the Republican Party's foreign policy brain trust (including the six living former secretaries of state that back the treaty) and its legislators.

In this CFR transcript, Kay King, Micah Zenko, and James Lindsay discuss the congressional politics of the New START ratification and the potential foreign policy implications associated with its success or failure.

In a recent CFR roundup, four experts assess the strengths and weaknesses of the New START agreement.

Background:

Text of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) signed in April.

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