Obama signs New START treaty in Prague, but will the Senate ratify?

After a year of negotiations, President Obama and Russian President Medvedev signed a new treaty today to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles in both countries and make the world that much safer.

But will the Senate do the right thing and ratify the treaty, or will they hold it hostage to partisan politics?

At the signing ceremony today in Prague, President Obama spoke about how the treaty opens the door to further actions to reduce the threat posed by nuclear weapons. Here’s an excerpt:

Together, we’ve stopped that drift, and proven the benefits of cooperation. Today is an important milestone for nuclear security and non-proliferation, and for U.S.-Russia relations. It fulfills our common objective to negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. It includes significant reductions in the nuclear weapons that we will deploy. It cuts our delivery vehicles by roughly half. It includes a comprehensive verification regime, which allows us to further build trust. It enables both sides the flexibility to protect our security, as well as America’s unwavering commitment to the security of our European allies. And I look forward to working with the United States Senate to achieve ratification for this important treaty later this year.

Finally, this day demonstrates the determination of the United States and Russia — the two nations that hold over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons — to pursue responsible global leadership. Together, we are keeping our commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which must be the foundation for global non-proliferation.

While the New START treaty is an important first step forward, it is just one step on a longer journey. As I said last year in Prague, this treaty will set the stage for further cuts. And going forward, we hope to pursue discussions with Russia on reducing both our strategic and tactical weapons, including non-deployed weapons.

The White House has posted both the treaty text and the protocol online here.

The treaty allows for modest reductions down to 1,550 Russian and US deployed strategic nuclear warheads, a total of 800 missiles and bombers to deliver nuclear weapons, and limit of 700 deployed missiles and bombers. Significantly, once it is ratified, it would put in place verification measures to ensure both sides are playing by the rules by allowing on-site inspections and data exchanges. Putting in place legally binding verification measures is important, as the expiration of the original 1991 START treaty means that there are no such measures officially in place. The treaty allows a full 7 years for these reductions to be made and once the treaty enters into force will remain in effect for 10 years.

The next step is for the treaty to “be referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations, which under the Senate rules has exclusive jurisdiction over treaties….Similarly, past practice suggests that other Senate committees, such as the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, may also conduct hearings and report their views to the Foreign Relations Committee, but the treaty would not be formally referred to those committees.”

On the merits of the treaty alone, there is no reason for this not to gain strong bipartisan support, as have past nuclear weapons treaties with Russia. We need a supermajority of 67 senators to ratify the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Our safety shouldn’t be a partisan issue. The 23,000 nuclear weapons in the world today mean 23,000 chances for accidental launch or theft by terrorists. However, the polarized and divisive atmosphere in the Senate could throw a monkey-wrench into the effort to gain the support of the 67 senators needed for ratification of New START. Sen. Kyl, a Republican from Arizona, is also likely to try to delay or oppose the new treaty. Reuters notes:

Analysts say potential obstacles to the Senate’s consent lie not so much in what is in the new treaty, but concerns that some Republicans have raised about related matters: U.S. missile defense programs and the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

U.S. politics and procedural rules could also delay Senate action and indirectly, that of Russia’s Duma. Russian officials say they want to “synchronize” ratification, suggesting they may not be willing to vote until the Senate does.

But Senate Republicans soured by the recent healthcare battle with Obama may be in no rush to hand him a foreign policy victory ahead of November congressional elections.

These factors will make it crucial for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to show strong leadership during the ratification effort. Assuming the treaty is submitted to the Senate in early May, that leaves precious little time for the Senate to hold hearings and have a vote before the elections. Reid will have to make sure Republican and Democratic support is rounded up quickly, and schedule a floor vote this year. Additionally, debate over the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal needs to be grounded in reality. The independent and expert scientific groups called the JASONs has found that current efforts to maintain our arsenal are working just fine.

A number of senators have already begun voicing their support for New START. Today, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) issued this statement on how the treaty will make Americans safer:

President Obama has demonstrated his global leadership by successfully negotiating a START Treaty that will make America safer by reducing the number of Russian and American nuclear weapons, strengthening our ability to verify information about Russia’s nuclear arsenal, and decreasing international dangers of nuclear proliferation.

The treaty, along with the new nuclear posture review announced Tuesday, sends a positive signal to the rest of the world that safety and security is best achieved by reducing stockpiles of nuclear weapons, not by building them up.

The new START Treaty will soon come to the Senate to be approved. The United States has a long history of bipartisan support for nuclear arms control dating back to Presidents John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush. I look forward to joining Senate colleagues from both parties in support of this agreement.

Cross posted at Groundswell Blog