Page van der LindenMore on New START Amendments

There’s not very much time left in the US Senate lame duck session, and there’s a lot of work yet to be done. Fortunately, as David Culp tweeted yesterday, that work will include Senate consideration of the New START treaty; according to the Senate calendar, at 2:15 PM today,”there will be a roll call vote on the motion to proceed to Executive Session to consider the START Treaty…”.

This will only be the beginning of what could turn into a bit of a circus. Despite the fact that there has been a trend toward support from some Republican Senators, others have vowed to make the process as difficult as possible; Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) has actually said that he “will work very hard” to make sure the treaty resolution does not get approved in the lame duck session. The track that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has chosen, i.e. consideration of New START on a dual track with consideration of the federal budget proposal, isn’t going over well with Republicans, so the outlook for the lame duck session is a bit cloudy at this point.

As Joshua Pollack predicted in his post last week, treaty opponents are likely to propose amendments to the treaty itself and to the resolution of ratification. Since Josh’s post, we have found out that a number of amendments will be offered, and that the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that the preamble to the treaty can be amended. A number of Republican Senators are happy about this, because the treaty preamble contains language on missile defense that they find unacceptable.

Given these recent developments, here is what you need to keep in mind as the Senate considers the treaty resolution of ratification.

How the Amendment Process Works

There are a few excellent resources regarding how a treaty resolution moves through the Senate. The White House has some information on its website, there’s an excellent CRS summary, and there’s a rather large 448 pg CRS report that goes into all the historical details. The best summary has been published by the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, so let’s stick with that for now.

Much drama has come about because the proposed amendments to the treaty resolution and the treaty itself (including that to the treaty preamble) have been called “treaty killer” amendments. However, the most important thing to remember is the math. The bold emphasis in the following excerpt is mine:

  • The Senate has never added an amendment to the text of an arms control treaty because the amendment would have to be approved by the other party(ies) to the treaty. Any amendment to the text of the treaty requires 51 votes, not a two-thirds vote, to be adopted (which means that a simple majority of the Senate can defeat any of the amendments).
  • After debate on the treaty itself, the next step is for the Senate to consider this resolution. The Senate is not to begin considering the resolution of ratification on the same day it completes debate on the treaty itself and disposes of any amendments to it, unless the Senate by unanimous consent determines otherwise.
  • The resolution of ratification can be changed on the Senate floor through conditions, reservations, understandings and declarations. A simple majority vote, not a two-thirds vote, is required to approve any of these additions (which means that a simple majority of the Senate can defeat any of the additions).
  • Once the Senate has begun consideration of the treaty, cloture can be filed at any time. Two days must pass for that cloture vote to occur. If cloture is successful then there is a 30 hour limits on debate on both the treaty and the resolution of ratification. At the end of the 30 hours there is a vote on any pending amendment(s) to the resolution of ratification and then immediately on passage of the resolution which will need the two thirds vote.

So, you see, it’s far more difficult to amend treaty text than you might think. Rounding up 51 votes in a situation where the Democrats are not likely to break ranks (which is the case with New START) would be quite a chore. In other words, yes, the Republicans won this round; the parliamentarian said they could amend the treaty. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

The Treaty Preamble

Now, let’s look at the preamble. The Republicans have been objecting to the missile defense-strategic nuclear weapons language for a long time. The preamble specifically says:

“Recognizing the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, that this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced, and that current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties.”

But, as Kingston Reif says, “A link [between strategic arms and missile defense] is of course not a limit. But it has been longstanding U.S. policy to note the link between offensive and defensive forces. And it’s still our policy.”

Keep that in mind as things move forward in the Senate.

What’s Really Going On?

The reason the proposed amendments are being called “treaty killers” is because the Russians would object to any amendments we make, would probably propose their own amendments, and this could ultimately kill the treaty.

However, what I think is going on right now, with the lame duck session, is that the Republicans want to run out the clock. Each amendment must be voted on, and precious time would be lost on the Senate floor. The more time spent arguing over amendments, and the time needed to consider the amendments, the less time there is to finish things up and get to a final vote on the treaty resolution.

We’ll have a lot more to say about treaty amendments and New START in general in the coming weeks. This post (and your comments) will hopefully provide a good point of reference as we watch the debate unfold.

UPDATE: I mentioned this in the comments, but the Senate voted 66-32 on the Motion to Proceed to Executive Session to Consider Treaty Doc. 111-5 Between the U.S.A. and the Russian Federation (New START). The roll call vote is here. Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) did not vote, but will very likely vote “yes” on the resolution itself.


  1. FSB (History)

    “A number of Republican Senators are happy about this, because the treaty preamble contains language on missile defense that they find unacceptable.”

    I wonder how many Republicans are aware that missile defense (as planned) does not work, and whether it really accords with their alleged fiscal conservatism to push taxpayer $ towards something technically infeasible?

    What of the Tea-Party republicans who allegedly don’t like to waste taxpayer $?

    Where are the reporters on this issue?

  2. Scott Monje (History)

    A simple majority can defeat an amendment, but the next question is whether skeptics (as opposed to staunch opponents) then become frustrated enough to vote againt the treaty itself, which still needs 67.

    Speaking of wasting time, DeMint has insisted that the treaty and the hundreds of pages of annexes be read alound on the Senate floor. On the other hand, there have been rumors that the Republicans might quietly agree this month to pass the treaty next month. (Go figure!)

    • page (History)

      If the votes go as they did today (66 in favor, 32 against), New START will pass. The 67th “yes” vote will come from Evan Bayh, who didn’t vote today but will vote in favor of the resolution. If the Republicans who voted “yes” today stick to voting “yes” in the end, the treaty resolution will pass.

      It also looks like DeMint won’t get his way. I think that proposing that the treaty be read, and proposing a bunch of amendments that will take up lots of time, is pretty hypocritical, since the people proposing all of this are the same ones saying that “we don’t have time for New START during the lame duck session”.

  3. Anon (History)

    Can we give Kyl another $80billion and an extra-large Freedom Fries to push this through more quickly?

  4. anon (History)

    At this point, the Senate goings-on about New START have less to do with New START, which has enough votes for ratification in its present form (i.e., sans amendments), and more to do with running the clock out on DADT and the DREAM Act. A number of Republican Senators who support the treaty as written, such as McCain, will nevertheless offer amendments because they want to eat up time, knowing that their amendments will ultimately fail.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      They’ll also propose amendments that will look reasonable to the general public so they can later accuse Democrats of undermining U.S. security by voting against them.

  5. A Complete Stranger (History)

    A very helpful post! Im going to read that big CRS report if it kills me.

  6. P.E.T. (History)

    It’s not about Hawks v Doves – it’s about Dems v Repubs. As for START, it’s irrelevant.

  7. M. Simon (History)

    Anti-missile tests are proof positive that an anti-missile defense is impossible. Tsipis wrote something to that effect in Scientific American quite a while ago. And then the incoming missiles started getting hit. Now it’s: the system being designed is too expensive. Is that the best you got?

    As to the lame duck session – why not convince the American people that a treaty with the Russians is a good idea? Then there would be no need to try and push arms control through a repudiated Congress. If such a move was successful it would probably sour the American people on arms control for decades. Go ahead. Make my day.

    The current situation is proof you haven’t made your case.

    But I’m here to help. Convince Iran an NoKo to drop atomic weapons and I think your case will be much stronger. Good luck with that.

    BTW in a world without nuclear weapons the man holding the last one (so to speak – you need more than one) is king. How can you be sure no one is holding a clandestine arsenal? That is the big one.

    A nuke program is hard to hide. A nuke weapon? No problem.

  8. P.E.T. (History)

    “I’m glad M. Simon knows more than Nobel prize-winning phyiscists:…”

    Nobel prizes have become liberal propaganda.

  9. page (History)

    A NOTE TO COMMENTERS: Please keep the personal attacks to a minimum and stick to the subject. I know emotions are high, but it would be very useful to other people reading this thread if you’d share information and knowledge and not how much you dislike what you imagine someone else’s agenda to be.

    Thank you.

  10. anon (History)

    “379+ days without inspections of Russian Nuclear weapons”

    If you suspect they might be cheating, why would you want to sign a treaty with them?

    • page (History)

      Well, the only way you can tell if they’re cheating is if you can do inspections and monitor their activities. The New START treaty provides for a way to do this.

      It’s also important to note that the Russians tend to escalate their paranoia if they’re suspicious of our activities. They only way we can reassure them that we’re not up to any funny business ourselves is to allow their inspectors to come over here, which is part of the New START verification regime.

      See Jeffrey Lewis’ post here, which describes some of these issues: “Dead Hand, START, and Strategic Stability“.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      Besides, if there’s no treaty, then by definition there’s no cheating. They’re free to do what they want. That gives you a situation like the current one regarding tactical nuclear weapons. Hoping to avoid long, drawn-out negotiations as the Soviet Union was falling apart, G. H. W. Bush and Gorbachev addressed tactical nukes through parallel, unilateral statements. It was an emergency response to an emergency situation, but it produced no verification regime and no legal obligations to verify in any event. Now, numerous people in the Senate are decrying Russian “cheating” on tacnukes–evidently based on what they assume the Russians are doing and what they think the Russians’ obligations ought to be–and feeding suspicions about what the Russians’ intentions are. G. W. Bush wanted to use this approach as a model for strategic nuclear weapons in 2002. If he had succeeded, mutual suspicions and incriminations would be worse than they are now.

  11. anon (History)

    “Well, the only way you can tell if they’re cheating is if you can do inspections and monitor their activities.”

    Well, that’s one way but, not the only means – nor is it fool proof.

    • FSB (History)

      Yes, yes, SeDef Gates and all the top military are idiots, and anonymous posters are correct.

  12. anon (History)

    “Reid said, adding that the debate soon “will come down to a simple choice: you either want to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists, or you don’t.”

    I wasn’t aware N.Korea, Iran, et al had signed on to START.

    • FSB (History)

      I wasn’t aware that N.Korea, Iran are terrorists.

      Friendly advice: You don’t advance your case by not checking your facts and your logic.

      But do continue to post.

  13. Tjewel (History)

    Wow! So much discussion for an irrelevant treaty. Must be the holiday spirits.

  14. George William Herbert (History)

    I find it somewhat ludicrous that we’re talking about maneuvering RVs and advanced decoy systems regarding nations that in some cases are just recently graduating to separating warheads and still using triconic warhead designs…

    The sort of BMD needed to stop a US or Russian (or French or British, and likely to some degree Chinese) ICBM/SLBM attack would be heinously expensive due to the complexity of counterdefensive measures.

    North Korea and Iran have a ways to go. Packaging a bunch of balloons in with the separating RV? Sure. Going all the way to something like Chevaline? Come on, look at how much effort the UK put into that program (much less US programs, etc).

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