The Cable

New START: The post-game spin

The New START ratification drive is over, but the post-game maneuvering has just begun and each stakeholder is putting out their own message about the treaty’s passage last week in an attempt to set the tone of the arms control debate going forward. The first question open for discussion is whether the vote on the ...

The New START ratification drive is over, but the post-game maneuvering has just begun and each stakeholder is putting out their own message about the treaty’s passage last week in an attempt to set the tone of the arms control debate going forward.

The first question open for discussion is whether the vote on the treaty — 71 to 26, with 13 Republicans voting yes — is a strong bipartisan show of support for arms control or a weak instance of a treaty barely passing despite a large, entrenched anti-arms control constituency in the Senate.

"We had a very strong result yesterday, with 71 senators voting in favor of the treaty, and that was resoundingly from both parties," New START’s chief negotiator Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemeoller said Dec. 23. "We had 26 nays, and three senators not voting. So a very good result, from our perspective, and the culmination of a very thorough process, working with the Senate since mid-May."

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), said the vote was extremely bipartisan, at least in this political environment.

"I would say to you that in today’s Senate, 70 votes is yesterday’s 95," Kerry said after the cloture vote to end debate on the treaty.

But the vote was also seen another way.

"26 Senators opposed the treaty — the most significant opposition to a ratified treaty in decades — because the Senate failed to address those flaws," read a post-vote e-mail sent out by Heritage Action for America, the lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation which tried to build grassroots momentum against New START and attacked GOP Senators who were thinking about voting yes.

Gottemeoller admitted that this block of GOP senators, which included Senate leaders Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), John McCain (R-AZ), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), could stay intact if the administration decides to enter into another congressional arms control debate.

"Now, clearly, there are members of the Senate who are not keen on further arms control measures. That’s always been the case," she said. "There has always been a block of opponents, historically, to nuclear arms reduction and control in the Senate. That’s part of a healthy debate; it’s part of a healthy process. I don’t see that as a major, major issue."

But it certainly could be a major issue as the 2012 presidential race approaches. The Heritage e-mail notes correctly that prospective GOP candidates Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, John Thune, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin all were opposed to New START.

The second major post-ratification question is whether the changes the Senate made to the Resolution of Ratification (ROR) to New START represent a victory for the treaty’s detractors and whether they will have real policy implications as the treaty goes into effect.

The Republican leadership is already arguing that the promises Obama and Democrats agreed to, as codified in the amendments to the ROR, represent wins for the pro-missile defense and anti-arms control communities.

"President Obama entered office promising to rid the world of nuclear weapons and drastically cut US missile defense capabilities, as evidenced by his Prague speech and first budget submission to the Congress cutting the missile defense program by $1.4 billion," read a GOP memo circulated on Capitol Hill just after the final vote. "Now, at the end of his first Congress, in the course of completing his signature foreign policy achievement, President Obama has committed his Administration to a wholesale modernization of the US nuclear complex, including improvements to warheads, facility infrastructure, and all delivery vehicles of the triad."

The memo refers to four amendments that were unanimously approved just before the final treaty vote. They express the U.S. commitment to improving missile defenses around the world quantitatively and qualitatively, pledges that U.S. missile defense deployment does not constitute a basis for Russian withdrawal from the treaty, and commits the U.S. to maintaining all three legs of the nuclear delivery triad: launchers, submarines, and heavy bombers.

The administration will argue that the language does not change the text of the treaty, but the Russian Duma is apparently concerned enough that it has delayed final ratification on their end until at least January, so that there is time to review and interpret the Senate modifications.

Even with the amended language, McCain couldn’t bring himself to sign on. He decided to vote no in the final hours of the debate because his even-stronger amendment on missile defense was never accepted by Kerry and the administration.

And, for his part, McCain is painting the ratification of New START as worrisome turn of events.

"Now that it has passed, I remain concerned that the Treaty in its final form could still be used by Russia to limit the development, deployment, and improvement of U.S. missile defense. I will work tirelessly in the years ahead to ensure that this never happens," he said after the vote.

What seems clear is that now that the Senate has completed its first arms control debate in over 10 years, both sides are now more educated and attuned to the issues involved and have a better idea of what their mission is on arms control going forward.

For arms control advocates, the goal is to build on the momentum from New START to push the administration to bring up the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prevents the testing of nuclear weapons, and was signed by the United States, but never ratified. It failed to pass the Senate in October 1999.

"The New START vote suggests it is possible for the Senate to reconsider and come together around the CTBT," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "The case for the Test Ban Treaty is even stronger than it was when the Senate last reviewed the treaty a decade ago. It is clear that the United States no longer needs or wants nuclear testing and that further nuclear testing could help others improve their nuclear capabilities."

But the GOP leadership in the Senate is confident the administration won’t be so willing to try and move any arms control treaties that don’t already have bipartisan support.

"After jamming New START through the Senate in a lame duck session where the Senate was concomitantly attending to a variety of other duties, and consequently achieving the lowest vote count ever for a ratified major arms control treaty, the Obama Administration is probably looking around wondering what is next for its nonproliferation agenda, now that CTBT is effectively off the table," the GOP memo said. "It would appear incumbent upon Republicans to provide the Administration with that agenda, beginning with a focus on the true nonproliferation threats of Iran and North Korea."

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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