Senate Authorizes Unilateral Nuclear Reductions

July/August 2000

The Senate approved an amendment to the fiscal year 2001 defense authorization bill that allows the president to implement unilateral nuclear reductions below START I levels following a strategic review. The amendment, approved June 7 by a largely party-line vote of 51-47, with most Republicans in support and most Democrats in opposition, would partially overturn a previous amendment in place since 1998 that prohibits the president from implementing unilateral reductions until START II enters into force. The amendment must now be considered in conference between the Senate and the House.

Senator John Warner (R-VA) put forward the amendment as an alternative to an amendment offered by Senator Bob Kerrey (D-NE). Kerrey's amendment sought to repeal the restriction entirely, while Warner's requires a strategic nuclear posture review before reductions are implemented. Warner's amendment also appears to leave in place the original amendment's restriction on "early deactivation" of weapons absent a negotiated U.S.-Russian deactivation agreement in the context of START II. The early-deactivation restriction limits many possible forms of dealerting, including removing warheads and taking other steps to "remove…systems from combat status."

Support for repealing the unilateral reductions restriction built in the Senate after George W. Bush, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, announced in a May 23 speech that he would pursue unilateral nuclear reductions if elected. (See ACT, June 2000.) Warner offered his amendment June 6, apparently in a last-ditch effort to oppose the Kerrey amendment. Arms control advocates have long called for repeal of the restriction, arguing that it requires the United States to maintain an unnecessarily large arsenal even if Russia's arsenal declines dramatically below START I levels.

The Warner amendment's posture review requirement appears to be directed toward allowing the next president to implement reductions while preventing President Bill Clinton from doing so. The nuclear posture required must be conducted concurrently with the next Quadrennial Defense Review, scheduled to be concluded in December 2001.