The fiscal year 2002 defense authorization bill before the Senate contains language that would lift a 1998 restriction effectively barring the president from unilaterally reducing U.S. strategic nuclear forces below START I levels. The restriction would need to be lifted before President George W. Bush could follow through on his campaign pledge to reduce U.S. forces unilaterally.
The Senate was unable to complete action on the bill in the final week of September and will take up the legislation again in early October. The House approved its version of the bill, which does not lift the restrictions, September 25. Several House Democrats had offered language lifting the restriction, but their amendments were rejected. However, the House bill does contain a partial repeal exempting the Peacekeeper missile from the restriction. The administration announced earlier this summer that it intends to retire all 50 of the multiple-warhead ICBMs between 2003 and 2005. (See ACT, July/August 2001.)
Pentagon officials have repeatedly asked Congress to lift the restriction. The language, first introduced in the fiscal year 1998 defense authorization bill, was originally intended to pressure the Russian Duma to approve START II. Moscow ratified that agreement in May 2000, but the treaty has not entered into force because of related disagreements over the ABM Treaty and national missile defense. (See ACT, May 2000.)
Democratic lawmakers mounted a major effort to overturn the language last year, but Republicans led by Senator John Warner (R-VA) resisted the move. In debate on the Senate floor just months before the end of President Bill Clinton’s term, Warner said he felt it was a “wiser course of action to defer such decisions…until the next president is in office.”
Given the disparity between the approved House and expected Senate bills, the issue will likely have to be resolved in conference negotiations between the two chambers of Congress. Conference negotiations, subsequent votes in each chamber, and submission of the bill to the president for signature will extend into the 2002 fiscal year, which begins October 1.