On Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to report New START, which is a strategic nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, out of committee and to the full Senate for consideration.
Talk is that the Administration will press for a vote in lame duck after the election, but some suggest Senate leadership might even try to sneak the treaty through before that. The committee did not make the Senate’s job any easier sending New START to the floor with lots of unanswered questions, an insufficient resolution of ratification, and new controversies about intelligence findings on Russian cheating over arms control. Furthermore, U.S. Senate requests to view the full negotiating record for the treaty were left unanswered.
Reviewing the negotiating record is important for answering questions over how the Russians interpret unilateral statements and provisions in the treaty on missile defense, and whether these statements and provisions limit missile defense options for future presidents. This is a critical question considering the growing threat from North Korea and Iran’s nuclear and ballistic weapons programs.
The committee’s vote and forwarding of New START to the full Senate was ill-advised. By not reviewing the negotiating record, the committee did not have the knowledge necessary to make an informed judgment regarding the full ramifications of the treaty for U.S. national security. In doing so, the committee failed to fulfill its “due diligence in exercising its portion of the advice and consent responsibilities the U.S. Constitution grants to the Senate in the making of treaties.”
While Senators from both sides of the aisle voted for the treaty, the ones that voted “no” are far from happy with how things were handled, including hearings that were overloaded with friendly witnesses. Even the committee markup had some pretty trying moments. Clearly, many Senators on the committee, including those who voted to send the treaty to the Senate floor, were uncomfortable with the notion of U.S. vulnerability to attack and the continuing policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).
Furthermore, the more that the public learns about the treaty and how it was handled in the committee, the more the public comes to doubt it. There is a fundamental lingering question that proponents of the treaty have not adequately answered: Will the this nation be able to protect and defend itself against evolving nuclear threats without bumping up against the bounds of the treaty? Treaty critics fear the answer is no. If anything the Foreign Relations Committee markup exacerbated those fears.
So where do we go from here?
On the one hand, the Administration may already have gotten, or think that they can get, the votes and are putting off the floor vote until after the elections so they won’t open Senators up to the criticism that they gave the White House a “big” win before November. On the other, the Administration may still be shopping to get the votes for ratification. If the latter is true the fight over the treaty might be far from over—particularly if concerns regarding the latest intelligence on the scale of Russian cheating, inadequate verification, and the impact on missile defense continue to build. This new intelligence, in particular, could be a very serious matter.
Either way, if the Senate plans to sufficiently meet its constitutional responsibilities to review treaties negotiated by the Administration it has a lot of work left to do. The Foreign Relations Committee did them no favors by ramrodding the treaty through.