Helms to Delay Vote On Chemical Arms Pact
Panel Chairman Puts GOP `Priorities' First
By Thomas W. Lippman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 4 1997; Page A01
The Washington Post
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) served notice yesterday that he will hold an international treaty banning chemical weapons hostage to his own foreign policy agenda, including reorganization of the State Department and reform of the United Nations.
Helms's staff released a Jan. 29 letter from him to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) saying that "top Republican priorities" such as "legislation that ensures comprehensive reform of the United Nations" should come before consideration of ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Senate Republican aides said Lott, whose support for the chemical treaty is lukewarm at best, is inclined to let Helms have his way rather than try to circumvent him and force an early ratification vote.
The treaty, one of the most ambitious global arms control agreements of recent years, was negotiated during a Republican administration and has been endorsed by many prominent current and former officials of both parties.
Aides to Helms portrayed his position as a test of the Clinton administration's professed commitment to bipartisanship in foreign policy, saying that Helms is prepared to negotiate. Supporters of the treaty said Helms has created the first big test of Lott's leadership, arguing that he should use his clout to win ratification of the agreement rather than letting Helms and his conservative allies control the agenda.
Signed by 161 countries and ratified by 68 -- three more than necessary for it to go into effect on April 29 -- the treaty bans the use, possession and manufacture of nerve gas weapons. If the Senate has not ratified it by then, the United States will be excluded from participating in the enforcement system, including international challenge inspections. Major U.S. chemical manufacturers have supported ratification because they will eventually be barred from some export markets because of U.S. failure to participate.
The treaty was scheduled for a ratification vote during the presidential election campaign last year. But then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher asked that the vote be postponed because he feared rejection after the GOP presidential nominee, Robert J. Dole, wrote to his former Senate colleagues expressing reservations about it.
At the start of Clinton's second term, he and his senior aides began a new push for early ratification. In a statement issued last month, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said Clinton "is committed to securing Senate approval by the April deadline so the United States will become an `original party' " to the treaty.
"If the U.S. is not an original party," the statement said, "it will forfeit its right to make critical decisions about treaty implementation that could have a significant impact on monitoring and enforcement of the treaty's obligations. We and other nations that do not join the treaty would also be subject to trade restrictions that could cost the U.S. chemical industry significant losses in sales and jobs."
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright went to Capitol Hill last week, her first full week on the job, to lobby for ratification.
Yesterday National Security Council spokesman David Johnson said the administration "intends to work with the Senate on a bipartisan basis to take up the Chemical Weapons Convention expeditiously on its merits. We intend to continue this work with the Senate to achieve this goal at the earliest possible time."
But the administration faces two high hurdles in efforts to get the treaty ratified. One is that Helms, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and other Senate conservatives have serious reservations about it. They say it cannot be adequately verified, would not be enforceable against outlaw, non-signatory nations such as Libya and gives inadequate guarantees of Russian compliance.
The other problem is that Helms, under Senate rules, is in a position to force the administration to negotiate because he can hold up treaties, ambassadorial nominations and confirmation of senior State Department officials. He did that in the last Congress in an unsuccessful effort to force the administration to accept his pet project, abolition of three foreign policy agencies and merger of some functions into a reorganized State Department.
"I must say at the outset," Helms wrote in the "Dear Trent" letter, "that I remain opposed to the CWC as transmitted by the president and that I believe it inadvisable to begin the 105th Congress considering one of the most contentious foreign policy issues among Republicans."
He said he wants to "focus on top Republican priorities first." According to Helms, these are "enactment of legislation fundamentally restructuring the antiquated foreign policy
agencies of the U.S." and passage of legislation "that ensures comprehensive reform of the United Nations."
He said he also wants the president to submit to the Senate for approval modifications negotiated with Russia of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, and he wants "enactment of legislation to deploy a national missile defense," a favorite cause of GOP conservatives.
Administration officials said yesterday they see Helms's letter as marking the opening of negotiations on the chemical weapons treaty. "This isn't the final word," one senior official said.
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