Lame duck is wrong place for New START

Rebeccah Heinrichs Foreign Policy Analyst
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The Obama administration has earned a bad rap for ramming legislation through Congress without sufficient oversight, Republican buy-in, or support from the American people. The White House rushed its bulky healthcare bill through before congressmen could read it. As House Speaker Pelosi infamously quipped, “[W]e have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”

This is bad enough with domestic bills, but imagine the foolhardiness of doing it with a nuclear arms control treaty. Yet that’s exactly what’s happening with the New START Treaty between the U.S. and Russia. President Obama told President Medvedev shortly after the midterm elections that ratifying the treaty is a priority for Congress’ lame-duck session.

Proponents of New START often complain that with no treaty in place, U.S. inspections of Russia’s nuclear arsenal have ceased, so for nearly a year, we’ve had little insight into what the Kremlin is doing. But this is not the Senate’s fault. Obama allowed the previous START Treaty to expire on December 5, 2009. He could have implemented a five-year extension while Washington and Moscow negotiated a follow-on treaty or amended the previous one, but he chose not to.

New START’s proponents also argue that no treaty is worse than this treaty. But these aren’t our only options. Surely a clearer, more comprehensive treaty that actually serves U.S. interests is an option.

A better treaty would address tactical nuclear weapons, of which the Russians are said to have 10 times as many as we do. And though the treaty caps both countries at 1,500 strategic weapons, Russian news agency RIA Novosti acknowledges that loopholes allow Russia to keep 2,100.

The treaty also leaves out rail-mobile ICBMs, which Russia continues to show interest in. And despite administration attempts to allay Senate concerns that the treaty won’t limit U.S. missile defenses, there are still major differences between U.S. and Russian interpretations of the relevant clauses.

Producing an agreeable text takes oversight, and unfortunately for the administration, which still faces major hurdles to the treaty, it takes time. Without the complete negotiating record, which the White House refuses to provide, senators do not know what terms the administration has accepted.

Though the Senate Foreign Relations Committee only invited two treaty critics to offer testimony — compared to 20 supporters — Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and fellow Democrats acknowledged that the text requires significant clarification when they voted a resolution of ratification out of Committee in September.

That Senate resolution declared that the treaty will not limit U.S. missile defenses, that the U.S. nuclear arsenal will remain safe and reliable, and that Russia’s rail-mobile missiles be counted. In response, Russian official Konstantin Kosachyov declared that his colleagues should reconsider ratifying the treaty. In his words, “the Senate’s dedicated committee has resorted to unilateral reservations not agreed upon with the Russian side.”

If the Russians believe that the treaty would be implemented differently than the Obama administration has been explaining it to Congress, clarifications are in order.

The lame-duck session is not an appropriate time to vote on a major treaty. If the administration forces a vote now, the senators who just lost their seats — those who were fired by their constituents — will vote instead of the senators recently hired. And senators who faced special elections will have no time at all to do the homework necessary to cast an informed vote.

This is not an auspicious way for Obama to kick off a session of Congress in which he will have to reach across the aisle. Even Senator John Corker (R-TN), one of three Republicans to vote the treaty resolution out of Committee, has said that the lame-duck session should not pass a treaty that would fail in a vote of the new Congress.

Rather than rushing through a treaty whose effects remain uncertain, the Obama administration should show its cards. It should allow the Senate — as newly constituted by the will of the people — time to deliberate and to see the negotiating records for itself.

Rebeccah Heinrichs is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.