Senate GOP is not opposing new START treaty… yet

Senate GOP is not opposing new START treaty… yet

Despite a strongly worded statement issued Thursday, leading Republican senators have not yet decided to oppose ratification of the newly signed nuclear reductions treaty, multiple GOP aides told The Cable.

Republicans senators with a strong interest in arms control have been heavily involved in the debate over the new Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty with Russia, which U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed in Prague Thursday. A tough statement issued Thursday evening by Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ and Senate Armed Services Ranking Republican John McCain, R-AZ, led many in Washington to speculate that they were gearing up to oppose Senate ratification.

But that decision has not yet been made, GOP Senate aides close to the issue said. The offices of leading GOP lawmakers, not just Kyl and McCain, are still pouring over the treaty text and investigating whether or not what the treaty says about missile defense is really problematic for them.

"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," the senators wrote. "This has the potential to constrain improvements to U.S. missile defenses, if objected to by the Russians."

They added that it would be "difficult" to ratify START in the Senate if their demand for a "robust" nuclear modernization plan isn’t fully met.

It’s true that the administration said before the release that the text of the agreement would not include any references to missile defense and would in no way constrain U.S. missile-defense plans. It was always expected that the preamble would acknowledge the relationship between offensive and defensive systems and that the Russians would issue a unilateral statement acknowledging their right to withdraw from the treaty if they believe American missile defenses are upsetting "strategic stability."

But what surprised the GOP senators was this passage in the text of the treaty:

"Each party shall not convert and shall not use ICBM launchers and SLBM launchers for placement of missile defense interceptors therein. Each Party further shall not convert and shall not use launchers of missile defense interceptors for placement of ICBMs and SLBMs therein.  This provision shall not apply to ICBM launchers that were converted prior to signature of this Treaty for placement of missile defense interceptors therein."

In other words, the treaty prevents ICBMs and SLBMs from being used for missile defense, a Russian concern. But the existing systems in Alaska and California are grandfathered in and the administration has no current plans to convert other ICBMs for missile defense use, an official explained.

Whether that represents a red line for Republicans like McCain and Kyl is simply not decided yet, our Senate sources said. The strong statement could be intended to establish a negotiating position to ensure they get what they are really worried about: a nuclear modernization plan that they feel safeguards U.S. stockpiles going forward.

Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review, also issued this week, ends the prospects of building a completely new warhead, but the State Department is preparing a "stockpile management plan" and a "life extension program" for the old warheads that could do almost all the things a new warhead program would do.

A Wednesday statement by Kyl and McCain commenting on the release of the NPR also indicated that the two lawmakers are still processing the documents and open to supporting them if their concerns are addressed.

"We will evaluate this [NPR] carefully in the coming weeks, including when we see the modernization plan required by law at the time the START follow-on treaty is submitted to the Senate," they wrote.

So when might a vote on START happen?

The latest speculation is that the Senate would be wise to do it during the lame-duck session in November and December. This way, the administration and its supporters on Capitol Hill could avoid a lengthy debate just prior to the midterm elections but also get it done before the new Congress takes its seats, probably with even more GOP senators.