By Daryl G. Kimball
Following the Nov. 2 U.S. mid-term election, Congressional leaders and the White House now must shift from campaign mode to governing mode. That will be tough for many, but is necessary for the health and security of the nation.
Congress will reconvene on November 15 for a post-election "lame duck" session. Senators might start working together on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), one of the few domestic or foreign policy issues upon which there is a modicum of bipartisan agreement consensus.
If Senate leaders agree to spare 2-3 days for floor debate and a vote on the treaty, it would very likely win well over the 67 votes that are needed for ratification. The results of the November 2 election, which was clearly about the economy, jobs, and federal spending and not foreign policy, don't fundamentally change that calculus.
Senate leaders now need to put a tough campaign behind them and put U.S. national security first by acting to approve New START this year and not delaying it until next year.
Why the rush?
Prompt ratification of New START is the only way to close the "verification gap" that has emerged since the original START expired on Dec. 5, 2009. New START would establish an updated system of information exchanges and enhanced on-site inspections that would provide more information on the status of Russian strategic forces than was available under START. It would cut U.S. and Russian deployed strategic warhead levels by 30% below current limits.
Without New START, each side would be tempted to engage in more-costly force modernization and hedging strategies. "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," Gen. Kevin Chilton, the commander of STRATCOM, said June 16.
Since last spring, a vast array of experts -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- has urged ratification, including four former secretaries of state, four former secretaries of defense, three former national security advisors, seven former Strategic Command chiefs and all three leaders of the nation's nuclear labs. And it has what Defense Secretary Robert Gates termed "the unanimous support" of America's military leadership. Outside groups ranging from the Arms Control Association to the Air Force Association support the treaty.
The Senate certainly should not "rubberstamp" treaties, nor should they delay votes on vital national security matters.
At this point, there is no substantive reason for the Senate to dilly-dally on New START. Senators have all the information and time necessary to decide. There have been more than 21 hearings and briefings on the treaty and the White House formally answered more than 900 questions from Senators. In September, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommended ratification with a bipartisan 14-4 vote.
Until now, many Republican senators have withheld their support at the behest of Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who has threatened to block New START unless there is still more money flowing to the already well-funded U.S. nuclear weapons production infrastructure.
Such tactics are irresponsible and unnecessary. Earlier this year, the administration outlined an $80 billion, 10-year plan to modernize the weapons complex and continue to refurbish existing warhead types (a 15 percent increase over current levels). Its plan calls for spending another $100 billion over the same period to upgrade strategic nuclear delivery systems.
Obama's $7 billion request for National Nuclear Security Administration nuclear weapons complex activities in fiscal year 2011 was 10 percent higher than it was in the final year of the George W. Bush administration. Linton Brooks, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Bush administration, said in April, "I'd have killed for that budget and that much high-level attention in the administration."
So far, the Obama administration has ensured its fiscal year 2011 budget request has not been cut by congressional appropriators. Congress must act before Dec. 3 to approve an extension of the federal budget.
However, if the Senate does not vote on New START before year's end, the administration may not be able to protect the program from cuts.
And the in the "cut the budget" climate that will likely prevail in the next Congress, demands for even more funding for already well-resourced nuclear weapons labs would be fiscally irresponsible and politically hazardous.
If Kyl and McConnell try to block New START and, later, reconsideration of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, it would not simply shatter the fragile political consensus for higher funding to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile in the years ahead, but it would damage the credibility of U.S. global leadership and U.S. efforts to reduce the nuclear weapons threat.