President Obama has made Senate approval of the New START treaty between the United States and the Russian Federation a priority before sine die adjournment next week. The treaty would reduce offensive nuclear weapons to 1550 or less for each side—a modest outcome leaving both with more than enough for deterrence. More importantly, the treaty reinstates on-site verification of Russian nuclear forces. Verification has been an important U.S. arms control priority since the START process began under President Reagan, but it expired with the original START treaty last year.
President Obama has the bipartisan support of the chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senators John Kerry and Dick Lugar. However, because a two-thirds vote of the Senate is required to approve treaties, a determined minority wields more leverage here than with other issues. Under the leadership of Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), key Republicans have opposed moving the treaty during the lame-duck session. They argue that more time is needed to deliberate two legitimate concerns.
First, a smaller force makes modernization of our nuclear infrastructure more urgent. The Administration addressed this concern by making $84 billion available for Department of Energy's nuclear weapons modernization program.
The second concern presents a larger problem. At issue is the longstanding U.S. arms control principle that there should be no linkage between offensive and defensive systems. Any agreement that inhibits the U.S. ability to develop stronger missile defense capabilities is unacceptable to the United States. A lack of clarity on the issue and some of the preamble's language concerns Senator Kyl and his allies. Administration officials maintain that there is no link and that the treaty will not limit missile defense; however, contentions from Moscow suggest otherwise.
The missile defense issue will have to be resolved before many senators will vote for the treaty, and it would be unwise for the Democratic leadership in the Senate to bring it up unless it can count 67 firm votes in support of START. By the end of next week we will see if this issue was resolved in haste or if it will wait for the 112th Congress.