There’s not very much time left in the US Senate lame duck session, and there’s a lot of work yet to be done. Fortunately, as David Culp tweeted yesterday, that work will include Senate consideration of the New START treaty; according to the Senate calendar, at 2:15 PM today,”there will be a roll call vote on the motion to proceed to Executive Session to consider the START Treaty…”.

This will only be the beginning of what could turn into a bit of a circus. Despite the fact that there has been a trend toward support from some Republican Senators, others have vowed to make the process as difficult as possible; Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) has actually said that he “will work very hard” to make sure the treaty resolution does not get approved in the lame duck session. The track that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has chosen, i.e. consideration of New START on a dual track with consideration of the federal budget proposal, isn’t going over well with Republicans, so the outlook for the lame duck session is a bit cloudy at this point.

As Joshua Pollack predicted in his post last week, treaty opponents are likely to propose amendments to the treaty itself and to the resolution of ratification. Since Josh’s post, we have found out that a number of amendments will be offered, and that the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that the preamble to the treaty can be amended. A number of Republican Senators are happy about this, because the treaty preamble contains language on missile defense that they find unacceptable.

Given these recent developments, here is what you need to keep in mind as the Senate considers the treaty resolution of ratification.

How the Amendment Process Works

There are a few excellent resources regarding how a treaty resolution moves through the Senate. The White House has some information on its website, there’s an excellent CRS summary, and there’s a rather large 448 pg CRS report that goes into all the historical details. The best summary has been published by the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, so let’s stick with that for now.

Much drama has come about because the proposed amendments to the treaty resolution and the treaty itself (including that to the treaty preamble) have been called “treaty killer” amendments. However, the most important thing to remember is the math. The bold emphasis in the following excerpt is mine:

  • The Senate has never added an amendment to the text of an arms control treaty because the amendment would have to be approved by the other party(ies) to the treaty. Any amendment to the text of the treaty requires 51 votes, not a two-thirds vote, to be adopted (which means that a simple majority of the Senate can defeat any of the amendments).
  • After debate on the treaty itself, the next step is for the Senate to consider this resolution. The Senate is not to begin considering the resolution of ratification on the same day it completes debate on the treaty itself and disposes of any amendments to it, unless the Senate by unanimous consent determines otherwise.
  • The resolution of ratification can be changed on the Senate floor through conditions, reservations, understandings and declarations. A simple majority vote, not a two-thirds vote, is required to approve any of these additions (which means that a simple majority of the Senate can defeat any of the additions).
  • Once the Senate has begun consideration of the treaty, cloture can be filed at any time. Two days must pass for that cloture vote to occur. If cloture is successful then there is a 30 hour limits on debate on both the treaty and the resolution of ratification. At the end of the 30 hours there is a vote on any pending amendment(s) to the resolution of ratification and then immediately on passage of the resolution which will need the two thirds vote.

So, you see, it’s far more difficult to amend treaty text than you might think. Rounding up 51 votes in a situation where the Democrats are not likely to break ranks (which is the case with New START) would be quite a chore. In other words, yes, the Republicans won this round; the parliamentarian said they could amend the treaty. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

The Treaty Preamble

Now, let’s look at the preamble. The Republicans have been objecting to the missile defense-strategic nuclear weapons language for a long time. The preamble specifically says:

“Recognizing the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, that this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced, and that current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties.”

But, as Kingston Reif says, “A link [between strategic arms and missile defense] is of course not a limit. But it has been longstanding U.S. policy to note the link between offensive and defensive forces. And it’s still our policy.”

Keep that in mind as things move forward in the Senate.

What’s Really Going On?

The reason the proposed amendments are being called “treaty killers” is because the Russians would object to any amendments we make, would probably propose their own amendments, and this could ultimately kill the treaty.

However, what I think is going on right now, with the lame duck session, is that the Republicans want to run out the clock. Each amendment must be voted on, and precious time would be lost on the Senate floor. The more time spent arguing over amendments, and the time needed to consider the amendments, the less time there is to finish things up and get to a final vote on the treaty resolution.

We’ll have a lot more to say about treaty amendments and New START in general in the coming weeks. This post (and your comments) will hopefully provide a good point of reference as we watch the debate unfold.

UPDATE: I mentioned this in the comments, but the Senate voted 66-32 on the Motion to Proceed to Executive Session to Consider Treaty Doc. 111-5 Between the U.S.A. and the Russian Federation (New START). The roll call vote is here. Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) did not vote, but will very likely vote “yes” on the resolution itself.