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New START: A Test Of GOP Seriousness

SOURCE: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

President Barack Obama, right, drops by a meeting hosted by Vice President Joe Biden, center, on New START in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, Thursday, November 18, 2010.

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A version of this column first appeared in Politico.

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty boasts genuine bipartisan support and ratification is crucial to restore the verification system, which lapsed when the original START agreement expired in 2009. The Republican leadership in the Senate, however, prefers yet more delays because they fear losing their leverage once it’s time to vote yes or no on New START.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) must recognize that most Republicans have little interest in killing the treaty. He should schedule a vote in this lame duck session regardless of whip counts. The United States and the world will then know whether Republicans choose partisanship or the security of the United States.

New START is one of few measures in recent years with significant backing from both parties. It is the extension of President Ronald Reagan’s arms control legacy. A virtual who’s who of Republican foreign policy luminaries are lined up in support. The entire military establishment backs the treaty, including the head of the Missile Defense Agency, Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, who says the treaty will “reduce the constraints on the development of the missile defense program.”

Nearly half the Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee joined all the Democrats in favoring a resolution of approval by a 14-4 margin in September.

The treaty received such broad support because it is a modest continuation of our nation’s post-Cold War commitment to reduce our nuclear arsenal and is vital to ensuring continued nuclear stability. The pact updates the verification and monitoring framework put forth by the original START treaty. Nearly a year has gone by since the last onsite inspections of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. These inspections provide crucial information that our military planners, intelligence community, and senior policymakers need to do their job: ensuring U.S. national security.

Though a handful of Republican senators outright reject New START and are ideologically opposed to arms control, the majority are likely to support the treaty if it comes to a vote. Yet the Republican leadership—Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) in particular—is again advocating delay, perhaps to extort as big a nuclear earmark as possible out of the Obama administration, or maybe just to make President Barack Obama look ineffective and weak.

Their leverage is in dragging out the process. This tactic has worked so far; Democrats have twice delayed action to appease them. But the political upside of voting down the treaty is minimal. The glow of defeating President Obama would be overshadowed by the significant and lasting downsides to U.S. national security.

Rejecting New START is likely to end, for the foreseeable future, any chance at additional negotiated reductions in Russia’s nuclear arsenal. But that is not all. Failure—or even if the ratification vote is pushed into the next Congress—is likely to have a significant effect on other vital U.S. national security interests and lead allies to question America’s capacity for global leadership.

The U.S.-Russia “reset” engineered by the Obama administration has paved the way for greater Russian cooperation on pressuring Iran to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and on supply and support for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. If New START goes down, or is further delayed, Russian cooperation could wane, or even end. As we learned before President Obama pushed “reset,” Russia can be an effective spoiler on many issues vital to U.S. national interests if it so chooses. Rejecting New START would be a major incentive for it to do so again.

Our European allies are also looking on with growing concern. They are worried that the thaw in tensions and improvement in Russian-European relations since the reset could come under threat. Many are puzzled how Washington could agree to massive cuts in nuclear weapons with its mortal Cold War enemy, yet struggle to secure modest additional reductions two decades later.

Republican senators must know this, which is why (despite all their complaining) so few, including Senator Kyl, have said they would vote against the treaty. The votes will be there. But even if some Republicans are actually willing to vote against New START in the lame duck session, why would anyone think they would be more cooperative next year? Delay would simply reinforce partisan stalling tactics. As Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) recently noted, “If we do not have to make tough choices now, why make tough choices?”

After seven months of consideration, 20 hearings, and more than 700 questions submitted by senators, it is time to vote on New START. Republicans are likely to offer their familiar complaints—that Democrats are rushing it through and they need more time. The Obama administration and Senator Reid should stop these delays: Schedule the vote and force senators to choose between partisan politics and the national security of the United States.

John D. Podesta is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for American Progress. He served as a chief of staff for President Bill Clinton.

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