USIS Washington File

14 October 1999

Senate Rejection of Test Ban Treaty Leaves Much Unresolved

(Clinton Pledges to Maintain Moratorium, Pursue Arms Control) (1140)
By Ralph Dannheisser
Washington File Congressional Correspondent

Washington -- When the U.S. Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban
Treaty October 13, it marked the first time in the nuclear age that
the body had turned down an arms control agreement negotiated by the
executive branch.

Some observers reached back further in terms of a historical parallel
and compared the action to the Senate's rejection in 1919 and 1920 of
the Treaty of Versailles creating the League of Nations -- a pact that
had been fervently pushed by President Woodrow Wilson. That action
denying U.S. membership hobbled the international organization and,
many historians feel, helped create the international conditions that
ultimately led to World War II.

While denouncing the Senate's CTBT action as dangerous and motivated
by partisanship, President Clinton pledged later October 13 that it
did not spell the end for U.S. participation in arms control -- that
"when all is said and done, the United States will ratify the test ban

Moreover, Clinton promised that, despite the defeat, the United States
under his presidency would continue its policy of abstaining from all
nuclear testing, a policy it has followed since 1992.

The CTBT would institutionalize such a testing halt for all
participating nations, adding a ban on underground explosions to an
existing ban on atmospheric testing.

As vexing as it may be at times to members of the executive branch,
the Senate's role in approving treaties is clearly established in the
basic document setting forth the structure of the U.S. government --
the Constitution, ratified in 1789.

That founding document prescribes that the president "shall have
power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make
treaties, provided two thirds of the senators present concur."

In the present case, proponents of the treaty did not even come close
to mustering the required margin. Indeed, they failed to gain a simple
majority, with just 48 votes in favor, 51 against, and Senator Robert
Byrd, the Senate's senior Democrat, voting present.

Developments in the days and hours leading up to the vote suggested
that the outcome resulted from a blend of partisanship and deeply held

Partisanship could be deduced from the fact that only four of the
Republicans, who are in the majority in the Senate, parted company
with 51 of their colleagues to vote in favor of ratification.
Meanwhile, 44 of the 45 Democrats voted to ratify, with only Byrd
withholding his outright support.

But at the same time, it appeared clear that principle on both sides
played a role as well. Among the Republicans who opposed the treaty as
written were Senator John Warner of Virginia, the widely respected
chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Senator Richard
Lugar of Indiana, himself a champion of earlier arms control efforts
including the Nunn-Lugar Act.

Many senators -- including some who had substantive objections to
portions of the treaty -- worked hard to put off a vote, once it
became clear that the votes for passage were lacking. An outright
defeat by the Senate, they worried, could undermine the United States'
standing as a moral leader in the world and encourage other countries
with a nuclear capability to expand testing of their own weapons.

Warner, along with his equally respected colleague, Democrat Daniel
Moynihan of New York, led an effort to convince Senate Majority
(Republican) Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi to take the issue off
the Senate schedule.

By late October 13, Warner and Moynihan reported that more than half
of the 100 senators had signed on to their effort. But that was not
enough to sway the Senate leadership in the face of the determined
insistence by several Republicans, including Senator Jesse Helms of
North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
that the treaty be voted on and defeated.

U.S. allies around the world swiftly expressed disappointment at the
Senate action, with NATO Secretary General George Robertson saying he
hoped that "this is not a permanent position."

Meanwhile Russia, which itself has yet to ratify the treaty, said it
was "disillusioned and seriously concerned" by the vote. "This
decision is a serious blow to the entire system of agreements in the
field of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation," Foreign Ministry
spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin said.

The outcome of the vote, the stakes in terms of defense policy and
worldwide arms control efforts, and the post-vote comments by the
president virtually guarantee that the Senate action will become a
campaign issue as the 2000 federal elections approach. Nationwide
elections will be held in just over a year for a new president, one
third of the 100-member Senate, and all 435 seats in the House of

As a rule, it should be noted, foreign policy issues do not tend to
energize U.S. voters.

Nevertheless, Democrats can be expected to take up Clinton's argument
that "it is crazy for America to walk away from Britain and France, 11
of our NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) allies, the heads of
our nuclear labs, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 32 Nobel laureates, and
the whole world, having depended on us for all these decades to lead
the fight for nonproliferation."

Those arguments could be made more forcefully if, for example, Russia
or China -- both also adhering to a moratorium at this time -- resumes
testing, or if increasing tensions between India and Pakistan lead to
an acceleration of their nuclear weapons production and testing

"We expect that this should be and will be a national issue next year
in the presidential elections," Senate Minority (Democratic) Leader
Tom Daschle of South Dakota said after the vote.

Republicans could try to use the issue as well, suggesting that the
Senate saved this country from signing on to an unenforceable and
unverifiable treaty that would also threaten efforts to maintain the
safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Most Republican
candidates for their party's presidential nomination, including the
front-runner, Texas Governor George W. Bush, have already condemned
the treaty.

In the meantime, there would be nothing to prevent the president from
bringing the treaty before the Senate once again -- perhaps with
language appended to soothe serious opponents -- should changing
circumstances produce a situation in which it appeared that the needed
67 votes for ratification could be mustered.

To date, the CTBT has been signed by 154 nations -- with President
Clinton the first national leader to sign, in 1996. But it has been
ratified by only 26 of the 44 nations known to have a nuclear
capability -- those nations that must ratify to put it in force.

(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International
Programs, U.S. Department of State)