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New START votes expected Monday as GOP leaders decry process

New START votes expected Monday as GOP leaders decry process

Republican senators continue to suggest changes to New START to improve what they see as poorly negotiated aspects of the treaty with Russia, but their efforts were expected to fail in votes Tuesday afternoon.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) continued to rail against the process Democrats were using to advance the treaty and said a decision on something this important should not be "squeezed in" against a deadline. "This is reason enough to delay a vote," he said.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) rejected that argument, accusing the GOP leadership of creating a false narrative that would be amplified by the "right-wing blogosphere."

"Is there no shame, ever, with respect to the arguments made sometimes on the floor of the Senate?" asked Kerry. "Today marks our sixth day of debate on the New START Treaty… Now, they’ll come to the floor and say, well, we had an intervening vote here, an intervening vote there. Sure, Mr. President, that’s the way the United States Senate works. And that’s the way it worked when they passed the first START Treaty in five days."

Republican offices still don’t agree with Kerry’s math, considering that only a few hours have been spent on the treat each day. "Their definition of a day is three and a half hours," said one GOP Senate aide. Republicans will continue to bring amendments in advance of what is looking like a Wednesday evening or Thursday morning final vote on the treaty.

Nobody knows if the treaty supporters have the two-thirds majority needed to pass the resolution of ratification. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) filed cloture Sunday night, setting up a vote to end debate for Tuesday, which would need 60 votes to be approved. Then, after a maximum of another 30 hours of debate, the Senate will hold a vote on the treaty itself, which needs 51 votes to pass. That will be immediately followed by a vote on the resolution of ratification.

GOP senators were waffling back and forth Monday, with Lindsey Graham (R-SC) threatening to vote no and Thad Cochran (R-MS) threatening to vote yes. Reid and Kerry are intent on moving forward with the vote regardless of Republicans’ stated intentions, in what is amounting to a huge gamble by treaty supporters that the votes will be there when the moment of truth comes.

Monday’s Senate floor action will center around two amendments, one (PDF) brought by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) that would increase the number of inspections allowed under the treaty and one (PDF) brought by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) to increase the number of nuclear delivery systems allowed under the treaty. Both Inhofe and Thune are expected to vote "no" on New START. Their amendments are expected to be voted down Monday afternoon because treaty supporters have characterized them as "treaty killers" that would require new negotiations with Russia if adopted.

The Senate debated both amendments Monday morning, expecting to head into a closed session Monday afternoon, with votes expected later Monday although no time agreement had been reached.

The Inhofe amendment would triple the number of "Type One" inspections from 10 to 30 and the number of "Type Two" inspections from 8 to 24. The amendment is meant to respond to Republicans’ concern that the current number of 18 inspections per year is unfair because the United States only has 17 facilities that qualify for inspections, so Russians would see all of ours in one year. Russia, however, has 35 facilities, so it would take the United States two years to see all the Russian facilities.

Treaty supporters combated Inhofe’s concern by quoting senior defense officials, such as Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, who has said he is "very comfortable with the verification regime that exists in the treaty right now," and that the "verification regime that exists in [the New START Treaty] is in ways, better than the one that has existed in the past."

The Thune amendment would increase the maximum number of delivery vehicles in the treaty from 700 to 720. The Congressional Research Service wrote that "[Russia] currently has only 620 launchers, and this number may decline to around 400 deployed and 444 total launchers."

Therefore, some GOP senators argue, this limit only requires action by the United States. They also point out that the Obama administration has yet to explain exactly how they will get down to 700 launchers. The administration’s report on the treaty, called the 1251 report, provides for a nuclear delivery vehicle force with up to 420 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 240 submarine launched ballistic missiles, and 60 bombers. That adds up to 720, not 700.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates was planning as recently as September 2008 for a future strategic nuclear force of close to 900 delivery vehicles. Gates and Mullen acknowledged in a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 17 that this would still require further reductions to meet the treaty’s central limits. 

"The unnaturally low delivery vehicle limit in New START has drastic consequences for each leg of the triad [of delivery vehicles]," read a GOP fact sheet being circulated about the Thune amendment. "And remember, President Obama has said he wants to go even lower than this."

Thune is interested in this issue because South Dakota, his home state, stands to benefit greatly from production of Boeing’s Next Generation Bomber, which is meant to replace the aging fleet of strategic bombers being limited under New START.

The National Posture Review points out that the United States currently has 94 nuclear-capable bombers. "It appears that any future nuclear force meeting the New START central limits will have to cut the bomber leg almost in half," the fact sheet said.

Treaty supporters will argue that the treaty gives the United States seven years to reach the 700-launcher threshold. They will also point to the support that the treaty enjoys from senior military officials. In September, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright said, "I believe the treaty limitation of 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles imposed by New START provides a sound framework for maintaining stability and allows us to maintain a strong and credible deterrent that ensures our national security while moving to lower levels of strategic nuclear forces."