The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved President Barack Obama’s choice to be his top arms control official in late October, after a September committee hearing raised few red flags and the nominee won the support of a key Republican senator.
Rose Gottemoeller, nominated in May to be undersecretary of state for arms control and international security to replace Ellen Tauscher, has been serving as acting undersecretary and as assistant secretary for arms control, verification, and compliance. She was the main U.S. negotiator for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which the Senate approved in December 2010. (See ACT, January/February 2011.)
There had been speculation that Senate Republicans would use Gottemoeller’s confirmation hearing as an opportunity to widely criticize Obama’s arms control agenda, including New START and plans announced in June to pursue another round of nuclear arms reductions with Russia. Instead, senators focused their questions at the Sept. 26 hearing on whether the administration would reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal unilaterally. On Oct. 31, they approved Gottemoeller’s nomination without objection by a voice vote, along with the nominations of Adam Scheinman, senior adviser to the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, to be special representative of the president for nuclear nonproliferation, and Frank Rose, deputy assistant secretary for space and defense policy, to replace Gottemoeller as assistant secretary.
A vote by the full Senate on the nomination had not been scheduled as of press time.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), ranking member on the committee, said at the September hearing that he had recently received a letter from Secretary of State John Kerry stating, as Corker described it, that the United States “would not agree to additional reductions with Russia without going through the treaty process.” Corker then asked if that commitment would prevent the administration from “making unilateral reductions in our own arsenal if a treaty with Russia is not achievable.”
Gottemoeller replied that the administration has already begun to pursue a treaty with Russia, a process she described as “a difficult slog” and that “unilateral reductions are not on the table,” but did not rule them out in the future. Corker asked the question again, and Gottemoeller gave the same reply.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) then said it was his understanding, based on Gottemoeller’s testimony, that “you stated definitively here today that if Russia doesn’t agree to make further limitations on strategic nuclear weapons, the administration will not make unilateral reductions.”
After Gottemoeller repeated four times that unilateral reductions were not on the table, but refused to rule them out, Rubio said that he does not support unilateral reductions and that “apparently it’s not the policy of the administration to rule them out in the future.”
In an Oct. 22 statement to Arms Control Today, Corker said that “we’ve been concerned about the administration pursuing further nuclear arms reductions with Russia outside of the treaty process and without following through on full modernization of the existing U.S. arsenal.” He said the State Department has “affirmed the Senate’s role in any future negotiations with Russia” and that he had received additional assurances on modernization that “were more promising than in the past.”
“With those assurances, I plan to support” Gottemoeller’s nomination, Corker said. The letter has not been made public, and Corker did not provide further details on what the assurances were.
Rubio remains concerned about “the administration’s unwillingness to definitively pledge that militarily significant reductions to the U.S. nuclear arsenal would only be carried out through a treaty subject to the advice and consent of the Senate,” a spokesman said in an Oct. 23 e-mail. The spokesman did not indicate Rubio’s position on the Gottemoeller nomination. Rubio was not present for the Oct. 31 committee vote.
Republican senators have been suggesting for months that any U.S.-Russian arms control treaty that Obama might submit for Senate approval would likely be rejected and that they oppose the idea of pursuing an informal process with Russia that would not be subject to Senate approval. Led by Rubio, 24 Republican senators sent a letter to Kerry in June, stating that “[i]t is our view that any further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal should only be conducted through a treaty subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.”
A report last November by the State Department’s International Security Advisory Board raised the possibility of an informal approach to U.S.-Russian reductions. The report said that Russia and the United States could seek additional reductions on the basis of a mutual understanding rather than a formal treaty.