Stalled on START

Our view: Senators must put partisanship aside to ratify a strategic arms-control treaty

November 23, 2010

President Barack Obama is facing the first big test of his post-midterm-election presidency in his effort to get a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ratified by the Senate during the lame-duck session of Congress. In the real world, the stakes are enormous: our relationship with Russia; the chance for meaningful sanctions against the rogue states of Iran and South Korea; the effort to reduce the number of nuclear weapons that could one day go astray — all ride on it. Unfortunately, the view looks different in the crucible of Washington, where Republicans are looking at the matter as determining whether Mr. Obama is still a force to reckoned with in the wake of the Democrats' devastating midterm election losses or if he is a weakened president going into the final two years of his term.

The administration had been in quiet talks with the lead Republican negotiator on the issue, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, whose support was considered essential to get the 67 votes needed for ratification. But hopes for a deal fell apart last week when Mr. Kyl said he thought there wasn't enough time left to debate the measure and urged putting off a vote until next year. That would leave one of Mr. Obama's signature foreign policy initiatives stalled indefinitely in a Senate where the Democrats will have a significantly smaller majority after the new Congress convenes in January.

The administration had offered Mr. Kyl more than $80 billion in upgrades to the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal in exchange for backing New START, which would replace the original START I treaty signed with the former Soviet Union in 1991. That agreement, which expired last year, was first proposed by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 and aimed to drastically reduce the number of nuclear warheads and missiles in the two sides' arsenals. New START would reduce the stockpiles by another 30 percent, to 1,550 warheads each. (START II, signed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and President George H.W. Bush in 1993, didn't reduce the number of warheads in each country's arsenal but banned the use of multiple warheads on a single missile.)

President Obama, who has often spoken of his vision of a "nuclear-free world," believes Senate ratification of New START is critical to improving relations with Russia, whose support the U.S. is counting on to address the proliferation of threats posed by countries such as North Korea and Iran. Last week, Mr. Obama invited to the White House a group of former GOP foreign policy heavy hitters that included Henry A. Kissinger, James A. Baker and Brent Scowcroft to argue against delaying ratification of the treaty. But so far, only a single Republican senator, Richard Lugar of Indiana, has come out in favor of the agreement. The rest of the GOP caucus seems more interested in dealing the president a political setback that will damage his prospects for re-election in 2012 than in approving an arms-control deal that is clearly in the U.S. interest.

It used to be said that partisanship should stop at the water's edge. But those days seem long gone in today's toxic political climate, in which a senior figure like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell openly boasts that his party's top priority for the next two years is to ensure that Mr. Obama is a one-term president. Never mind that New START's provisions for on-site inspection and verification were one of Ronald Reagan's most enduring foreign policy accomplishments and that Mr. Obama is seeking to improve on and extend that legacy.

Mr. Kyl's lame argument that senators don't have enough information to judge the treaty's merits is, sadly, what now passes for patriotism, despite the reality that Republicans have no intention of doing anything that might possibly make Mr. Obama look good, even if that hurts the country. Democrats can still force a vote to make the Republicans go on record as opposing their own former president's legacy, and they should if Mr. Kyl keeps up his obstructionism. Then let those who put partisanship ahead of the nation's security justify their votes, if they can, to the American people.

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