Jeffrey LewisNew START At A Crossroads

Forget all the stories explaining how the election imperils the New START treaty.  The elections matter, but not quite in the way you think.

The real threat to the New START treaty is now from the nuclear-weapons complex — comprising  NNSA, the labs, and the production facilities — which is poised to blow up the bipartisan consensus in favor of both the New START Treaty and modernizing the nuclear-weapons complex, over a wafer-thin mint.

The issue is whether to insist on a multi-year appropriation for the nuclear-weapons complex.

Whatever you think of the President, the Prague Agenda or New START,  the Administration has succeeded in establishing a bipartisan consensus on nuclear-weapons policy featuring reductions to New START levels, with substantial investments in the modernization of the US nuclear-weapons complex.

This is a pretty good deal for NNSA, the national laboratories and the rest of the nuclear-weapons complex.  They have gone from open warfare with their appropriators in Congress during the Bush Administration to a Presidential commitment to spend unprecedented sums on modernizing the nuclear-weapons complex. The Administration pushed Congress to pass a Continuing Resolution for the budget — which typically funds government entities at the previous year’s level — containing increases in NNSA’s budget. There is a reason that Linton Brooks told the Exchange Monitor that “I would’ve killed for this kind of budget.”

But that wasn’t the entirety of Linton’s quote, which is actually very revealing about the current impasse over New START:

No organization in the history of government has said, ‘Oh gee, I got too much money.’ I’m sure somebody can find something they wish was in there but I would’ve killed for this kind of budget.

That is, apparently, exactly what is happening: some little birds in NNSA are finding new wishes, one after another.  Now, there is always some WeeBee who will don the mantle of “responsiveness” to Congressional interest and cook up some scheme to get a little more dough.  It now appears NNSA is arguing that recent flooding at PANTEX, among other unexpected requirements, will eat into this year’s budget.  Are asking yourself: Is NNSA really about to kill the goose that laid an $8 billion egg over $60 million in flood damage?

Yes, apparently some of them are!  The little birds at NNSA appear to be speeding toward this precise cliff. Senator Kyl, prompted by sources inside NNSA, is now mulling over whether to demand another delay in ratification, followed by a multiyear design/construction appropriation next year to guarantee that the money will be available in future years. Did you know Congress could do that?  Yes, they can! (Here is a nice primer on the topic.) But Congressional appropriators almost never do, since the annual appropriations process is an essential element of  Congressional oversight.

The House and Senate Appropriators are going to refuse such an obvious usurpation of their prerogatives. That means that the little birds at NNSA probably can’t win the battle over multiyear appropriations, but it can blow up the entire deal.

And, in doing so, the little birds at NNSA will destroy the bipartisan consensus tentatively established by the Obama Administration. The lack of a bipartisan consensus on US nuclear weapons policy during the Bush Administration was a catastrophe, first and foremost for the national laboratories.  There wasn’t much good news for arms control in this period, but the open warfare between the labs and their congressional appropriators was terribly damaging.  A Republican Congress refused to fund the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator and Reliable Replacement Warhead, and recompeted the contract for Los Alamos National Laboratory, which the University of California had held since the inception of the Manhattan Project.  This was the era of layoffs, LANL: The Real Story, and Tommy Hook getting beaten up at Cheeks, to say nothing of documents turning up in meth labs and diffusion barriers in the trash.

Yet, that is where we are headed.  Of all of the stupid, self-destructive things the nuclear-weapons complex has done over the years, this would take the cake.

There are two key figures in whether the deal sticks, or not.

The first is Senator Kyl.  The Administration is making it clear that their strategy goes through Senator Kyl.  But Kyl is enigmatic:  Is he really looking for a deal on modernization, or is he just looking for a reasonable sounding excuse to torpedo the treaty?  The elections matter because Kyl is not just some Senator, but serves as Senate Minority Whip and, presumably, has higher ambitions.  His calculation is partly about New START, but also about his future role in the GOP.  He has to worry about covering his right flank from the likes of Jim DeMint, who is committed to dancing with Tea Party.

I continue to think that, given a stark choice between a well-funded nuclear-weapons complex or a talking point about how the Obama Administration is unilaterally disarming the United States, Kyl is ambivalent — particularly if DeMint is chirping at him from the right.  That’s why the little birds at NNSA are playing such a dangerous game in spinning up Kyl.  At the end of the day, Kyl wins either way.  The nuclear-weapons complex will be holding the bag.

What Kyl does not want is a deal without him.  That makes him irrelevant, instead of indispensible.

Which brings us to the second figure — the President himself.  He needs to start by learning to ride herd on his own damned bureaucracy — the number of openly disloyal political appointees is stunning. (Apparently, many fear the wrath of Republican Senators in a future confirmation more than the President himself, which is a bad sign.) From his initial decision to hire General Jones as National Security Advisor, he has shown an amazing lack of appreciation for how bureaucracy can stymie Presidential ambitions.  (Can it be that Barack Obama has never seen an episode of Yes, Minister?)

But after getting tough with his own team, Obama has to begin aggressively reaching out to Republican Senators directly, not merely relying on finding a magic formula for Kyl (which might not exist), or hoping that others, like Senators Corker or Lugar, will do his dirty work for him.

I continue to think that the Administration was clever to front-load most of the benefits in the budget as a way of reducing the partisan temperature over New START.  And, clever or not, it is hard to imagine someone of Barack Obama’s temperament handling it any other way. But this is the end-game, where you count votes and grab lapels, threaten and cajole.  An air of inevitability is crucial.

If there was ever a time for Obama to find a little Lyndon Johnson in him, this is it.

Update | 1:27 pm Stephen Young at All Thing Nuclear notes that the Secretary of Energy’s independent review of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) and the Uranium Production Facility (UPF) might be the stick to all the carrots.


  1. Francesco Femia (History)

    Thank you, Jeff, for posting the entire clip. It had been a while.. :)

  2. Not A Wonk (History)

    I believe that this entire exercise has been a result of the Republican’s desire to poke and de-rail this Administration over every topic available. The President makes well received statements promoting non-proliferation in Prague, two elements of which are New Start and CTBT. The Republicans respond by holding captive New Start to a huge budget increase, and after the Administration relents, then continual harping that it isn’t big enough. Now, the Administrations’ position is softening under the pressure, and the Vice President admits it might not be enough.

    With post-election statements by House Republican Leadership, I can see several things happening. First the Republican House will apply their 25% cut to the total Energy And Water bill, but preserve the NNSA “uplift”, thus decimating the rest of the DOE (parent org of the NNSA), the President will veto this bill, the Senate will then retract on support to New Start (CTBT will be dead), then as a coup de grace, the House will eliminate the uplift, putting large portions of the NNSA complex into mothballs, since they are already spending at the uplift rate.

    I hope I am wrong, but I believe with the wackiness of current politics, there is a significant probability that the above scenario could come to pass

  3. Jeffrey (History)

    Not A Wonk:

    I hope you are wrong too, but I don’t see any reason to think your scenario is implausible.

  4. Anon (History)

    If the democrats were smart they would play hardball with the republicans. I propose to them to say “OK, thanks we don’t want New START right now — but we will veto any funding for MDA, and forget about the NNSA uplift”.

    Basically disband the MDA.

    This will improve relations with the Russians sufficiently that we won’t immediately have to worry about not having ratified New START.

    Then the admin should move right on to CTBT before returning in a couple of years to sit down with the Russians about a New New START.

  5. P.E.T. (History)

    “…thus decimating the rest of the DOE (parent org of the NNSA)…”

    Now this would be a worthy accomplishment.

    • FSB (History)

      This is precisely why the masturbation socialist tea-baggers are bad for America. DoE has its share of pork but e.g. its science programs are essential to America’s competiveness and innovation.

      A DOE budget document explains “The FY 2011 request supports the President’s Plan for Science and Innovation, which encompasses the entire SC [Office of Science] budget, as part of a strategy to double overall basic research funding at select agencies. As part of this plan, the budget request supports the training of students and researchers in fields critical to our national competitiveness and innovation economy, and supports investments in areas of research critical to our clean energy future and to making the U.S. a leader on climate change.”

      Wouldn’t it be just wonderful if the tea-baggers while forcing their non masturbation on everyone else crippled DoE?

  6. MarkoB (History)

    So what happened to the “vision?” If I remember correctly just about everybody had Obama abolishing nukes and virtually penciling in the next strategic arms control accord following the signing of New Start and the release of the NPR. Was it not stated by those who supported New Start from the liberal end that it was a stepping stone to another treaty that promised to move towards “deep cuts?” Talk about being mugged by reality. I feel sorry for all you guys that got sucked into the Obama rhetoric. Life must be feeling a bit tough for you guys about now. A Treaty that barely cuts nukes, pretty mush leaves strategic nuclear war planning untouched in return for all this “modernisation” is a dud treaty, a dud treaty that the US arms control community has fallen for hook, line and sinker. You guys are complicit in sll this. At least the hawks have the courage of their convictions. If you can’t beat them, join them?

    • FSB (History)


      No New START? No big deal.

      The democrats have to learn to give the finger to the republicans as much as they receive the finger from them.

      My prescription agrees with Anon’s suggestion above.

      Plus, it would save a lot of money.

  7. Erich Kuerschner (History)

    I also agree with Anon and FSB.

    Frankly I see the only upside with START is that it supports increased exchange and transparency w/ Russian nuclear weapons personnel. As for MDA, stop the funding unconditionally.

    The US-Russia START Treaty:
    Just What Does “Arms Control” Really Mean?
    by Darwin BondGraham

    Re. the “update” and the role of the CMRR try

  8. Miles Pomper (History)

    I agree with Jeff’s analysis of Kyl.
    Where’s Jesse Helms when you need him?
    Remember the battle over the CWC?
    Kyl stood fast against it, but it was Helms and Trent Lott who cut the deal with the White House to get the treaty through.
    As far as I can see fathom, this and the LTBT may be the only significant arms control treaties that were approved with a Democratic president in office.
    Personally I’d look to trade for something like tax cuts–that’s something Republicans really care about…

  9. weaponeer (History)

    AP Source: WH Makes Offers to Break Treaty ImpasseBy THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Filed at 12:17 a.m. EST on November 13, 2010

    WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is offering to add billions of dollars in funding for the U.S. nuclear stockpile in a deal that it hopes will win enough Republican support for approval of a nuclear arms control treaty with Russia.

    White House officials outlined the proposal to Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who is seen as the key to winning enough support to ratify the New START treaty, according to a congressional aide briefed on the proposal Friday. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment.

    The offer was for a boost of $4.1 billion in funding between 2012-2016 for the nuclear weapons complex that will go to maintaining and modernizing the arsenal and the laboratories that oversee that effort. Of that, $1 billion would cover a deficit in the pension fund for the agency in charge of the stockpile and laboratories.

    The additional money comes on top of a boost of $10 million that the administration had already agreed to over 10 years.

    “This is a huge increase,” said Daryl Kimball, head of the private Arms Control Association. He noted that it is not certain that Congress will approve the funding, which will in any case have to be appropriated over time for each of the years in the proposal.

    The administration is scrambling to get enough Republican support in the Senate to ratify the New START treaty before the Democrats’ majority shrinks by six in January. In a sign of the urgency of the administration’s pitch, government officials traveled to Kyl’s home state of Arizona to brief him on the proposal, the aide said. Officials also briefed Republican Sen. Bob Corker.

    The aide said that the administration has also conveyed to Republican lawmakers that its offer is contingent on passing the treaty before the end of the year and that Democratic support for the boost in funding would likely evaporate, if the treaty stalls.

    Details of the proposal were made available to Senate staff, including aides on the Appropriations Committee Friday.

    It was not clear whether the offer had swayed Kyl and his office declined to comment.

    The White House had no immediate comment on the offer.

    The treaty would reduce the limit on strategic warheads to 1,550 for each country from the current ceiling of 2,200. It also would set up new procedures to allow both countries to inspect each other’s arsenals to verify compliance.

    Kyl has maintained that boosting funding for the stockpile would ease Republican concerns about the treaty by demonstrating that the administration is serious about maintaining a robust U.S. nuclear deterrent.

    A number of his Republican colleagues have said they will follow Kyl’s lead on the treaty, so his approval could push support beyond the 67 votes the administration needs for ratification, although many Republicans still are likely to oppose it.

    Some Republicans have argued that the treaty would limit U.S. missile defense options and does not provide adequate procedures to verify that Russia is living up to its terms. Advocates dispute both charges.

    The administration is worried that ratification could slip out of reach if a vote were to be delayed.

    Failure to win passage could trip up one of the administration’s top foreign policy goals: improving relations with Russia. The treaty, signed in April by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, has been the most tangible sign of success, and failure to get it ratified could be viewed as a rebuke in Moscow. It also would leave Obama’s push for even greater restrictions on the world’s nuclear arsenal in doubt.

    (This version CORRECTS that the $1 billion that would cover a pension fund deficit is part of the extra $4.1 billion in funding, not an additional amount, and that officials who traveled to Arizona were not White House aides.)

    • FSB (History)

      Ah, the “fiscal conservatives” at work again. Nice going, tea-baggers!

      Let’s throw out the big-government tax-and-spend republicans!

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