Senate Narrowly Averts Floor Vote On Cochran NMD Legislation

May 1998

By Craig Cerniello

On May 13, the Senate narrowly rejected a move to bring the controversial "American Missile Protection Act of 1998" to a floor vote, avoiding, at least for now, a confrontation with the Clinton administration over national missile defense (NMD) policy. Senate Republicans (joined by four Democrats) fell only one vote short (59-41) of the 60 votes needed for a motion of cloture, which would have ended debate on the measure and allowed a floor vote. It is unclear whether Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) will attempt to bring up the missile defense bill (S. 1873) again this year.

Introduced by Senators Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Daniel Inouye (D-HI) in March and approved by the Armed Services Committee in April, the American Missile Protection Act states that it is U.S. policy to "deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective [NMD] system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized or deliberate)." The bill, which now has 49 co-sponsors, is controversial more for what it does not say than for what it does say. Under S. 1873, the United States is required to deploy an NMD system after only one criteria has been met: the technology for an effective system is available. The legislation does not take into account the ballistic missile threat to the United States at the time of deployment, the costs of deploying such a system or the effect such deployment may have on arms control agreements.


The Administration's Effort

The Clinton administration's so-called "3+3" program currently requires the United States to develop an NMD system by 2000 that is capable of being deployed three years later if warranted by the ballistic missile threat. If no long-range ballistic missile threat exists in 2000, then the United States will continue to develop and refine the elements of its NMD system until such a threat does emerge, always remaining three years away from actual deployment. The administration maintains that the development phase of the 3+3 program is compliant with the ABM Treaty, but that the deployed NMD system may or may not require amendments to the treaty depending on its specific architecture.

As anticipated, the May 11 and 13 floor debate on the Cochran bill focused on two main issues: the nature of the missile threat to the United States and the effect that NMD deployment might have on arms control agreements. Questions concerning the cost of NMD deployment as well as the effectiveness of such a system in countering ballistic missile attacks were also raised during the debate.


The Threat

Several key Republican senators, including Cochran and Jon Kyl (R-AZ), claimed that the administration's program is not aggressive enough in meeting the already existing long-range ballistic missile threat to the United States. In support of this argument, they pointed to the possibility of an unauthorized or accidental nuclear launch from Russia or China, as well as to the emerging ballistic missile capabilities of so-called "rogue nations," such as Iran and North Korea. On more than one occasion, the Republicans voiced their concern about the North Korean Taepo Dong-2, a missile they claim will have the capability of reaching portions of Alaska and Hawaii. Moreover, the Republicans argued that the recent series of surprise nuclear tests by India prove that the U.S. intelligence community will not always be able to accurately predict when rogue nations may acquire ballistic missiles capable of reaching U.S. territory, thereby undercutting one of the key assumptions behind the administration's 3+3 program.

Senators Carl Levin (D-MI), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Thomas Daschle (D-SD), Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Joseph Biden (D-DE) led the attack against the Cochran legislation. On the issue of the missile threat to the United States, Levin cited Secretary of Defense William Cohen's 1998 Annual Report to the President and the Congress, in which the intelligence community concluded that the Taepo Dong-2 is the only rogue nation missile in development that could potentially reach certain parts of the United States, but the likelihood of it becoming operational by 2005 is "very low." The report said, "With this exception, no country, other than the declared nuclear powers, will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years that could threaten the United States, although outside assistance is a wild card that could shorten timelines to deployment."

Responding to the assertion that the Indian nuclear tests prove that we cannot predict ballistic missile developments and therefore need to deploy an NMD system, the Democrats argued that the nuclear tests lend support to another conclusion: namely, that the United States needs to bolster its nuclear non-proliferation efforts. During the May 13 floor debate, Kennedy said, "The nuclear tests conducted by India earlier this week are a wake-up call to the United States and all nations that our efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation are inadequate."


Arms Control Considerations

The 41 Democrats also vigorously made the case that NMD deployment would put the United States on a "collision course" with the ABM Treaty, thereby jeopardizing the enormous progress the United States has made with Russia in achieving deep strategic nuclear force reductions. "[I]f the United States unilaterally abrogates the ABM Treaty, the Russians will effectively end a decades-long effort to reduce strategic nuclear weapons. They will back out of START I. They will not ratify START II. And they will not negotiate START III," Daschle warned. According to administration estimates, START III will reduce the number of deployed U.S. and Russian strategic warheads by about 80 percent from their Cold War height.

The Republicans, however, did not accept this line of reasoning. In response to the claim that the missile defense bill would violate the ABM Treaty, Kyl argued that the legislation does not even mention the treaty and does not mandate the deployment of a non-compliant NMD system. "[S.1873] doesn't specify the number of sites, where they would be, or what kind of interceptors or missiles we would have," he said. Under the ABM Treaty, each side is permitted to deploy up to 100 ABM interceptor missiles at a single site.