“For 50 years, the Arms Control Association has educated citizens around the world to help create broad support for U.S.-led arms control and nonproliferation achievements.”

– President Joe Biden
June 2, 2022
Key New START Vote Set for Mid-September

Tom Z. Collina

Seeking to increase Republican support for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the panel’s chairman, announced Aug. 3 that he would not bring the treaty up for a vote until after the Senate summer recess. The legislative break, which began Aug. 7, ends Sept. 12.

Kerry said in an Aug. 3 letter to committee members that they should be prepared to vote on the treaty Sept. 15 or 16, leaving little time for a vote by the full Senate before senators plan to recess again Oct. 8.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton endorsed Kerry’s decision, saying at an Aug. 11 press briefing that it was “a gesture of good faith and underscores the tradition of bipartisan support” for strategic arms control treaties. But she said there should be no more delays. “[W]hen the Senate returns, they must act, because our national security is at risk. There is an urgency to ratify this treaty because we currently lack verification measures with Russia, which only hurts our national security interests,” she said. There have been no bilateral inspections of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals since the original START, which was signed in 1991, expired in December.

The committee vote was originally planned for Aug. 4. All 11 Democrats and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the panel’s ranking member, support the treaty. Two Republicans—Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and James Inhofe (Okla.)—are opposed, and five Republicans have not declared their position.

Kerry told reporters Aug. 3 that “we have the votes to report the treaty out of committee now,” but he moved the vote to September at the request of members who wanted additional time to review treaty materials that had yet to be delivered, including input from the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees, and to get responses to almost 800 questions that have been submitted. Kerry said he wanted to “build bipartisan consensus” around New START.

Lugar expressed serious concern about the delay. “The problem of the breakdown of our verification, which lapsed December 5, is very serious and impacts our national security,” Lugar told The Cable Aug. 3.

New START was signed by Russia and the United States on April 8 and would replace the 1991 START. New START would mandate reductions of both sides’ deployed strategic nuclear warheads by about 30 percent and associated delivery systems by about 50 percent below previous treaty limits, and it would re-establish a system of inspections and data exchanges to ensure compliance. (See ACT, May 2010.)

Timing of Floor Vote Not Determined

The new committee schedule means that a full Senate vote on New START could occur between mid-September and early October, during a postelection (lame duck) session of Congress, or sometime in 2011 after the new Congress is seated.

President Barack Obama has said he wants New START ratified before the end of the year. However, there will be many issues competing for time on the Senate’s crowded calendar before it adjourns. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has not said if he will reserve floor time for a vote on the treaty. Sources say he is likely to give New START floor time once it is clear that there are 67 or more senators who would vote in favor of ratification.

Some treaty proponents are concerned that the closer the vote gets to the election, the more partisan the debate may become. Lugar, the only Republican to publicly endorse the treaty, reportedly argued internally that the committee vote should have proceeded as planned on Aug. 4. “We ought to vote now and let the chips fall where they may. It’s that important,” he told The Cable Aug. 3.

For his part, Kerry told The New York Times Aug. 3 that once the committee approves the treaty in September, he was not sure if it would be approved by the full Senate before the election or in a lame duck session. “Either is equally possible,” he said.

GOP: Do Not Rush Vote

Republican leaders have said they are in no rush to vote on New START. “The only way this treaty gets in trouble is if it’s rushed,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) told Reuters Aug. 2. “My advice to the president was, don’t try to jam it, answer all the requests, and let’s take our time and do it right,” he said.

From Obama’s perspective, waiting until after the elections could make ratification more difficult. In the next Congress, opinion polls suggest there may be more Republicans in the Senate. Depending on the number of Republicans elected, there may be less incentive for McConnell and Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) to agree to a vote on New START during a lame duck session.

Politics aside, U.S. military leaders say there are significant national security reasons to proceed expeditiously to ratification, such as closing the current gap in on-site inspections. “If we don’t get the treaty, [the Russians] are not constrained in their development of force structure and…we have no insight into what they’re doing. So it’s the worst of both possible worlds,” General Kevin Chilton, U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) commander, testified June 16 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Similarly, seven former commanders of Strategic Air Command and STRATCOM, announcing their support for New START in a July 14 letter to the Senate, wrote, “[W]e will understand Russian strategic forces much better with the treaty than would be the case without it.”

Several Republican senators have not only been asking to review New START, but also have sought access to the negotiating record to get clarity on whether the treaty would limit U.S. missile defense programs. (See ACT, June 2010.) In his letter to committee members, Kerry wrote that the executive branch has provided a “thorough summary” of the negotiating record regarding missile defense. Foreign Relations Committee member Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) told Macon.com Aug. 4, “I find nothing in the treaty on missile defense that appears to be limiting.”

In addition to wanting more time to review New START, Republican leaders have been seeking more money for maintaining the nuclear weapons stockpile and modernizing the production complex. McConnell told Reuters Aug. 2, “All they have to do is find enough money to satisfy Senator Kyl” on the nuclear modernization issue “because without that I think the chances of ratification are pretty slim.”

According to Aug. 4 media reports, Kyl and Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said they want full funding in the fiscal year 2011 appropriations bill for the president’s $7 billion request to maintain the nuclear weapons stockpile and upgrade the associated infrastructure, as well as a “draft” budget from the administration for fiscal 2012 that includes a significant increase in funding for that effort.

Although he denied intentionally delaying the treaty, Kyl told Reuters Aug. 4 that it could be difficult to satisfy his demands before November and thus the vote on New START might need to take place during the lame duck session if the Senate wants to vote on the treaty this year. For example, a draft fiscal year 2012 budget may be not ready until November, when the Office of Management and Budget is expected to complete its work, nor is it likely that Congress will pass the appropriations bill until after the November elections.

Republican senators have cited a May 19 letter from 10 former directors of U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, which claims that the administration’s budget is “inadequate” for full construction of a plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and a uranium facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, each a multibillion-dollar project. They wrote of their concern that “Congress and the President will once again promise a great deal today, and then quickly forget about the nuclear weapons enterprise until something breaks.”

Gates and Chu replied to the former lab directors in a June 25 letter that they “recognize that out-year budgets are projections.” They wrote that as designs of the Los Alamos and Oak Ridge facilities mature, funding in future budgets “may require adjustment. We are committed to carrying out the intent of these and other initiatives to modernize the nuclear weapons enterprise.” Congress cannot commit federal funds more than one fiscal year in advance.

The fiscal year 2010 appropriation for nuclear weapons stockpile and infrastructure investments, programs that are managed by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, is $6.4 billion. The administration requested a 10 percent increase for fiscal year 2011, to $7 billion; the House and Senate appropriators have essentially approved that request, although the figure will not be final until an omnibus appropriations bill is passed. Using 2010 as the baseline, the administration’s $80 billion, 10-year plan would be an increase of $16 billion and includes $8 billion for the two construction projects. Michael Anastasio, current director of Los Alamos, testified before the Senate July 15 that the administration’s fiscal 2011 budget request is “an excellent start and a very strong, positive message.”

Nevertheless, Kyl and Corker have said that the administration’s funding plan for sustaining and modernizing the nuclear weapons complex is not enough. They say the plan, submitted to Congress in May, represents only a $10 billion increase over what was already planned to cover stockpile maintenance. After traveling to New Mexico to tour Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos in July, Kyl and Corker claimed that the administration’s spending plan falls roughly $10 billion short of what is needed for the new facilities at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge.

The former lab directors also said in their letter to Gates and Chu they are concerned that the language of the April Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) Report “imposes unnecessary constraints” on the labs by stating that “strong preference” will be given to refurbishment and reuse options for maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons, rather than options that would replace nuclear components with new designs. (See ACT, May 2010.) The NPR Report states that nuclear parts of warheads can be replaced with new designs only if authorized by the president and approved by Congress. The former lab directors expressed concern that this “higher bar” for replacement would “stifle the creative and imaginative thinking” at the labs. “If these skills are not exercised, they will be lost,” they wrote.

Gates and Chu replied that the requirement for presidential authorization for replacement is intended “to make sure that no one mistakes life extension activities for the pursuit of new warheads.” They said lab directors will be expected to study the full range of life extension options and to make recommendations “based solely on their best technical assessment.” The three sitting weapons lab directors stated in April that the NPR Report’s approach to life extension “provides the necessary technical flexibility” to manage the nuclear stockpile into the future with acceptable risk.

Resolution of Ratification

Kerry wrote to members Aug. 3 that the committee has begun to draft a resolution of ratification for New START and invited members to suggest language for it. Kerry wrote that the “working version” of the resolution will be circulated “well before” the business meeting on Sept. 15 or 16. The vote on the resolution itself may not take place until Sept. 21, sources say.

The Senate technically does not ratify treaties, but provides its advice and consent by approving a resolution of ratification, by a two-thirds majority vote, that empowers the president to ratify the treaty. The resolution includes any reservations, declarations, or statements that senators agree to make. For example, to address senators’ concerns about modernization, Lugar has suggested that the resolution of ratification for New START include language similar to the one for the 1993 START II, which never entered into force. In the START II resolution, the Senate declared “that the United States is committed to ensuring the safety, reliability, and performance of its nuclear forces” by conducting a stockpile stewardship program and maintaining the nuclear weapons production complex and laboratories.

After the Foreign Relations Committee marks up, or amends, Kerry’s draft resolution, the committee can vote on it. Those who vote against it have three days to attach minority views to the resolution before it is printed and sent to the full Senate, where any senator can offer amendments to the resolution. To be approved, such amendments, unlike the resolution itself, require a simple majority vote.