Will GOP Senators Flip Flop On START?

Republicans+Hold+Press+Conference+Health+Care+-v8-2WUhpvtlFor New START to get ratified, all that is needed is for the Republican Senators that voted for the initial treaty the first time around to vote for it again.

Arms-control agreements have long received overwhelming bipartisan support. The original START treaty passed in 1992 by a vote of 93-6 and many of the Senators that voted for the original treaty remain in the Senate today. Eight current Republicans and one independent voted for the original START treaty. Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell, John McCain, Richard Lugar, Orrin Hatch, Chuck Grassley, Kit Bond, and Thad Cochran all voted for the START treaty in 1992. Joseph Lieberman and Richard Shelby both Democrats at the time also voted for the treaty.

These votes — along with the Democratic votes — would be enough to ratify the treaty. Now, one could say that a lot has changed since the early 1990s. But when it comes to arms-control and US-Russia nuclear relations whatever has changed since 1992 has changed for the better.

First of all, there is more stability in the Russian government than there was during the last START ratification. In fact, the country with which the original treaty was negotiated — the Soviet Union — ceased to exist during Senate ratification. This level of instability could have given Senators immense pause, but after a brief delay the Senate overwhelmingly ratified the treaty.

Secondly, there was much greater uncertainty about the impact of the START treaty in the early 90s, since the treaty at the time was unprecedented. The Senate had no experience with the extensive verification and monitoring measures and had to start from scratch in studying their impact. Yet, the latest START treaty before the Senate essentially amounts to an update and extension of the original verification and monitoring measures. These nine Senators, unlike in 1992, can actually assess the significance of the START agreement. And since it is clear that the original START treaty helped lay the basis for nuclear stability between the US and Russia for nearly two decades, these Senators should in fact be more confident in voting for New START than they were in the 1990s.

Furthermore, during its early years the Bush administration insisted that long detailed treaties between the US and Russia were unnecessary, since the US and Russia were now good friends and friends could trust each other and didn’t need elaborate protocols to ensure that the other side was doing what it said it would do. As a result, President Bush signed and the Senate ratified the three page Moscow (or SORT) treaty in 2002, which trusted the Russians to reduce nuclear arsenals. Yet conservative opponents to START are not arguing that a treaty is unnecessary because we can trust the Russians, they are arguing that the US can’t trust Russia and therefore shouldn’t have a treaty with them. This has it exactly backwards. We have a detailed monitoring and verification regime because we don’t fully trust them.

For these START-1 supporting Senators, the fact is that if any of the dynamics have changed in the intervening years, they have changed in a direction that would make these Senators more amenable to ratification. In other words, should these Senators oppose START, it isn’t because the treaty has changed, it is because they and their politics have changed.

Not only would their opposition further demonstrate the conservative moment’s massive shift to the right, but it would also indicate a willingness by these nine Senators to put politics above the security of the country. Having supported the principle of arms-control in the past – unlike Sen. DeMint for instance who has consistently opposed such an approach — these Senators, should they oppose the treaty, should have to explain why they have shifted.