St. Petersburg Times
(St. Petersburg, Fl.)
March 2, 1998

Stand aside, senator

Jesse Helms, the veteran senator from from North Carolina, continues to hold hostage treaties and nominations he opposes for reasons that are not always clear to reasonable people.

This time, he is sitting on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The measure bans worldwide nuclear weapons tests and is one of the most widely supported anti-proliferation treaties to date. Helms, true to form, is holding it up, and fellow senators ought to be doing more to fight for its release.

The treaty was signed by President Clinton in 1996 and has since been signed by 147 other countries. It now awaits Senate ratification, but Helms, who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has refused even to schedule hearings on the measure.

As he did with the Chemical Weapons Convention last year, Helms is using every transparent tactic available to him to delay a vote on the nuclear weapons pact.

Helms says he will hold off discussing the measure until after the Senate considers the global warming agreement hammered out last year in Kyoto, Japan, and a series of amendments to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty signed with Moscow. If history is any indication, that process will take years, and the nuclear weapons convention should not be delayed in the meantime.

For one thing, failure to ratify the measure will mean the United States will forfeit a seat at a conference next year, when delegates are expected to decide how to implement the treaty's specific provisions. As the world's undisputed nuclear superpower, the United States cannot responsibly miss such an important event. That would be a crushing blow to our credibility as an international leader in the non-proliferation effort.

Helms' opposition to the treaty is mainly ideological. Though he has warned it could pose a threat to national security, his real concern is that its anti-nuclear objectives do not gel with the rest of his right-wing agenda. He is wrong on both counts.

Presidents of both political parties have recognized the importance of diminishing the world's reliance on nuclear weapons technology, going back as far as 1970. The issue transcends partisan politics.

More recently, four former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have publicly endorsed the treaty, noting that it will not weaken America's nuclear capabilities or damage our ability to fight wars.

Helms needs to be persuaded to bring the test ban treaty to the floor. Fellow Republicans will have to do the persuading. It will be a test of their leadership to prevent this important pact from languishing.