by John Isaacs
Published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Online on March 29, 2010
Article summary below; read the full text online
At long last, the United States and Russia are on the verge of signing a new treaty that reduces the countries’ nuclear arsenals. The treaty, a follow-on to the landmark 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), has been 95 percent complete for months, at least according to many U.S. and Russian officials, but disagreements over missile defense and verification procedures delayed the process. The result of these difficult negotiations will now face what could be equally tortuous consideration by the U.S. Senate.
It is a Senate bitterly divided between Democrats and Republicans, where comity is disappearing and bipartisan lawmaking largely has been replaced by the majority Democrats trying to build a legislative record for the 2010 and 2012 elections and the minority Republicans determined to prevent any major legislation from passing. Making matters worse, the recent yearlong battle to pass health-care reform has left tempers rawer than ever.
What’s next? After the treaty is signed in early April, the Obama administration will need 4-6 weeks to complete its associated paperwork and annexes, which largely deal with verification procedures, and an article-by-article analysis of the agreement.
The first step in the legislative procedure is for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to consider the treaty. It plans to start hearings on the topic sometime between Easter and Memorial Day. Eventually, it will propose what’s called a “resolution of ratification”–the document that the Senate actually votes on. The committee can add to the resolution of ratification conditions, reservations, understandings, and declarations on subjects related to the treaty, such as missile defense, nuclear weapons spending, and future arms control negotiations with the Russians. The Armed Services and Intelligence Committees might also decide to hold hearings on START follow-on, but only the Foreign Relations Committee will vote on approving the resolution of ratification.
Next, the full Senate considers the treaty. Most of the debate is likely to revolve around a new set of Republican conditions, reservations, understandings, and declarations. As with most legislation on the Senate floor, the procedures for the full Senate to consider the treaty will be worked out by Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
While the Foreign Relations Committee may move expeditiously, the full Senate could drag its feet. A lot depends on whether Republican skeptics want to hold up the treaty or let it go through. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was approved only nine weeks after its signing, but other treaties have taken many months. To wit, the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibited the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons, was completed in 1993 but not approved by the Senate until 1997, in major part because of opposition from then Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms.