New Senate, New START on Track

, Washington representative and senior analyst | November 3, 2010, 3:19 pm EDT
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Yesterday’s election results do not alter the chances for the Senate to provide its advice and consent to the New START arms control agreement. In fact, the treaty provides an excellent test case for whether the Senate will listen to the small minority of “anti-any treaty” arms control opponents, or to the overwhelming advice of the country’s military leadership and intelligence community in favor of New START. It should be a no-brainer.

Here is the skinny on the Senate’s post-election session, where a December vote on the treaty is quite possible. Three new senators will be seated. There is little doubt that Senator-elect Chris Coons of Delaware will support New START. The other two cases are more complicated, but both could and should end up as supporters. Senator-elect Mark Kirk of Illinois, based on his House track record, would normally be considered a strong supporter, but  he was pushed significantly to the right during his campaign. Will he be true to his record and go with the broad, bipartisan consensus of military officers and foreign policy leaders who support the treaty, or feel pressured to follow narrow political interests?

Senator-elect Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat, ran as far from President Obama as he could during the campaign, and that probably helped him get elected. But on this issue, he has indicated he would listen to the advice of our military before making a decision. And that advice will make his choice a simple one.

The simple fact is: the United States needs the treaty. It is a good deal for us, as the military leaders who would be responsible for actually using U.S. nuclear weapons have made clear. Seven of the eight living heads of U.S. nuclear forces publicly support New START. Without the treaty, our information about Russia’s nuclear stockpile declines every day. With it we are better informed and the future is more predictable. Without it our military leaders are forced to make strategic decisions without the best information.

One interesting question: how will the election impact Republican demands that their support for New START is contingent upon increased funding for the nuclear weapons complex? The administration has already pledged tens of billions of dollars in additional funding for the complex, and indications are that it will propose even more in the 2012 budget. In public and private, this funding has been the key demand from Sen. Jon Kyl, the acknowledged Republican leader on arms control issues.

But given the enormous budget pressures the new Congress will face, and the intense desire among new Republicans in the House in particular to reduce the deficit, will there continue to be support for providing tens of billions of dollars to the Department of Energy to build large, expensive new facilities for producing and maintaining nuclear weapons? Particularly in light of the Department of Energy’s poor track record for completing major facilities on time and on budget? While Republicans strongly support defense in general, in the current environment this spending should and will come under closer scrutiny.

In the big picture, it is also worth noting that foreign policy and defense issues were not an issue anywhere in this campaign. The last time these issues were raised, during the Obama-McCain election campaign, both candidates strongly endorsed further reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles. It was one of the few issues where the two candidates found a common sense, consensus position.

The administration has made clear that achieving Senate approval of New START during the post-election session is a high priority. We have been without “boots on the ground” in Russia, verifying its nuclear arsenal, since December 5, 2009. It’s time to ratify New START.

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