WASHINGTON -- President Clinton faced the stinging defeat of a prized foreign policy objective last night, as the Senate moved toward an agreement to delay voting on a nuclear test ban treaty indefinitely.
Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott tentatively agreed to withdraw the treaty without a vote after Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, promised not to push for a ratification vote until after Clinton leaves office.
The president's Democratic allies in the Senate are short of the two-thirds majority, or 67 votes, needed for passage of the treaty.
The best that Clinton can hope for is a delay that would ensure that a vote to kill the treaty would not be a part of his foreign policy legacy. At worst, the president may still suffer the lopsided defeat of an arms control accord that has been a top priority from the outset of his administration.
Even as he was negotiating a graceful exit, Lott was threatening to scuttle the treaty outright.
"I'm perfectly comfortable having a vote," Lott said. "This treaty is fatally flawed."
The White House has expressed grave fears that an outright Senate rejection of the treaty would weaken the U.S. hand in standing against nuclear proliferation and embolden other nations to push for a resumption of nuclear weapons testing.
At the same time, an indefinite delay in ratification would also represent a painful setback for Clinton, who coveted the treaty for his legacy but misjudged the Senate's opposition to it.
"We all dropped the ball," conceded Hazel R. O'Leary, a former administration energy secretary who first pushed the test ban onto the White House agenda. "The issue was the absence of a true champion" for the treaty.
A total ban on testing has been sought by arms control advocates since it was proposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Clinton signed the treaty in 1996, declaring it "the longest-sought, hardest-fought prize in arms control history" and sent the pact to the Senate the next year.
Since then, it had been bottled up in the Foreign Relations Committee by the panel's chairman, Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican who staunchly opposed its approval. As did other critics, Helms argued that a permanent ban on testing would jeopardize the long-term viability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
All nuclear-capable states must ratify the treaty before it can take effect. Only 25 of the 44 countries with nuclear capabilities have done so. The treaty has been signed by 154 nations.
When Senate Democrats began pushing for ratification this fall, Lott called their bluff, knowing that a quick vote would never garner a two-thirds majority. Lott turned opposition to the treaty into a show of unity for the Republican leadership, and partisan lines hardened.
"Both parties have now turned this into a highly partisan game of chicken," said Brent Scowcroft, who was a national security adviser to President George Bush.
"And whatever you think of this treaty, it's an important issue for the United States. To have it held hostage to petty partisan bickering is very unseemly."
Though Clinton publicly asked Lott on Monday to set aside the treaty, he refused to yield to Lott's demand that the issue be dropped for the rest of Clinton's term.
The president's refusal to budge forced Daschle to step in. Daschle promised Lott in a letter yesterday that, "absent unforeseen changes in the international situation, I will not seek to reschedule this vote."
There have always been sharp differences on the scientific merits of the test ban. But the arguments this round were clearly embittered by politics.
For once, it was Clinton who was caught flat-footed. Though the president had mentioned the treaty in his past two State of the Union addresses, he never mounted the kind of sustained public relations campaign that has helped him outflank the Republicans on tax and budget issues.
"This is the Clinton modus operandi: Wait until the last minute, then mount a last-ditch campaign to change just enough minds," complained Kenneth Luongo, a former arms control official in the Clinton administration. "It wasn't going to work with this treaty."
Treaty advocates contend that an international test ban would slow the proliferation of nuclear weapons by preventing non-nuclear nations from exploding their experimental designs.
At the same time, it would prevent countries with advanced nuclear weapons from engaging in a new arms race by foreclosing the pursuit of ever-more sophisticated weapons.
But treaty opponents said arms control monitors would not be able to monitor the clandestine testing of low-yield nuclear weapons. And they maintained that a permanent testing ban would allow the United States' formidable nuclear deterrent to deteriorate, because weapons scientists would not be allowed to test aging nuclear weapons to see if they still worked.