State Department on New START: It’s time to vote

State Department on New START: It’s time to vote

Next week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is slated to finally vote on a resolution to ratify the new START nuclear reductions treaty with Russia, amid growing concern that time is running out for the full Senate to consider the treaty this year.

Top Obama administration officials are working hard behind the scenes to convince GOP senators to get off the fence and announce their support for new START. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is going to be hard pressed to find precious floor time for the treaty before the Senate goes home for its recess before the midterm elections. What might happen after the elections is anyone’s guess. The treaty could be considered during the lame-duck session or be postponed until next year, but a more GOP-heavy Senate could change the calculus for getting to the 67 vote threshold needed for ratification.

Supporters of the treaty have been increasingly frustrated about the persistent delays. They blame Senate Republicans, who have been discussing a whole host of concerns they have over the treaty and withholding any commitment to support the pact. The GOP blames the Obama administration for what it sees as the shortcomings of the agreement and its refusal to share the full negotiating record with the Senate.

Regardless, top administration officials involved in the treaty said Friday that the administration had done pretty much all it can to appease Senate Republicans.

"This administration has provided the Senate with more information than is even necessary to make an informed decision," said Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher. "There’s been very robust outreach, every question has been answered, and it’s time to take the vote."

Tauscher alluded to the growing fear among New START supporters that the GOP reluctance to support the treaty is based in their reluctance to give Obama a foreign policy victory before the election.

"As an American citizen I will say that the American people are clearly frustrated and frankly fed up with the kind of partisanship they see on many issues, and they certainly become disheartened and frightened when they see it on national security, where for decades we’ve had an agreement that these were issues that were too important and had too much to do with the safety and security of the American people to be caught up in a partisan debate," she said.

Tauscher did not shed any light on the administration’s understanding of the treaty’s schedule following the committee’s planned  Sept. 16 vote. Earlier this week, The Cable reported that chairman John Kerry‘s draft resolution on ratification was facing internal criticism and had failed to win the support of ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN). Lugar is expected to circulate his own version on Monday.

Tauscher referred indirectly to this development, saying that it was not unusual to have two different resolutions brought to a committee vote. However, State Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that  it’s at least somewhat unusual and definitely less desirable, from the perspective of the administration, than having only one resolution on which to vote.

Since the old START treaty expired last December, there has been no verification of Russian nuclear activities and no process to work with Russia on areas of mutual concern – a fact that Tauscher focused on in making her case for the necessity of ratifying the new treaty quickly.

"The urgency to verify the treaty is because we currently lack verification measures with Russia," she said. "The longer that goes on, the more opportunity there is for misunderstanding and mistrust."

She also said that the administration’s proposal for huge increases in the budget for the nuclear complex and modernization of the nuclear stockpile, which was put forth in the fiscal 2011 budget request, is its final offer — even though some Senate Republicans have called for larger increases.

"We’ve shown our hand, we’ve proposed our budget, it’s a 13 percent increase," she said. "Any question about the commitment to modernization is just not a question."

She also took a gentle shot at those pushing for more money for the nuclear weapons complex, pointing out that their insistence for more funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration wasn’t evident before they decided to raise concerns about the START treaty. This feeds into the increasingly public sentiment among administration officials that senators are using the nuclear funding issue as just one more reason to delay a vote on new START.

"I was pretty lonely fighting for money for the NNSA and for the weapons complex before I left Congress for the administration," she said.