Amidst the late-night machinations and parliamentary skullduggery that now passes for legislative process in what once was known rightly as "The World's Greatest Deliberative Body," 41 senators have stricken a potentially decisive blow for freedom.
No, sadly I am not talking about a setback to the defective healthcare "reform" bill now trundling toward enactment. Rather, I am referring to an effort that suggests a critical bloc of senators is determined to exercise quality control with respect to another of President Obama's alarming agenda items: denuclearization of this country as a lubricant to his oft-stated goal of "ridding the world of nuclear weapons."
As first reported by Bill Gertz, the Washington Times' ace national security correspondent, every member of the senate's Republican caucus and Independent Joe Lieberman signed a strongly worded letter to Mr. Obama last week regarding the so-called "Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) follow-on agreement."
The latter is an agreement the administration has been trying frantically to negotiate with the Kremlin, not simply to extend the now-expired, original START accord but rather to replace it with a treaty making further, dramatic, and controversial cuts in U.S. and Russian strategic forces.
In their missive, the signatories have thrown down the gauntlet, aligning themselves with an approach to nuclear deterrence fundamentally at odds with that of Team Obama. They flatly declared, "We don't believe further reductions can be in the national security interest of the U.S. in the absence of a significant program to modernize our nuclear deterrent."
In other words, the senators reject the president's apparent belief that a smaller nuclear arsenal can be maintained indefinitely absent a comprehensive effort to replace existing, obsolescing weapons and the industrial infrastructure required by such new arms.
Sharing the senators' assessment is a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission chaired by former Secretaries of Defense William Perry and James Schlesinger — a fact prominently featured in the letter: "The members of this commission were unanimously alarmed by the serious disrepair and neglect they found [in the nuclear arsenal and its weapons complex], and they made a series of recommendations to reverse this highly concerning situation."
What might be called the "Gang of 41" went on to declare that they believe the commission's recommendations "constitute the minimum necessary to permit further nuclear force reductions."
The senators wrote that such "modernization should, at a minimum, include" these initiatives:
1. "Full and timely life-extension upgrades" to the aging B61 bomb and the Navy's W76 submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads.
2. "Funding for a modern warhead" designed to remain in the inventory for extended periods of time.
3. "Full funding for nuclear stockpile surveillance [the process whereby the safety, reliability and effectiveness of the deterrent is supposed to be assured] through the nuclear weapons complex, as well as the science and engineering campaigns at the nation's [nuclear] laboratories."
4. "Full funding for the timely replacement of the Los Alamos plutonium research and development and analytical chemistry facility, the uranium facilities at the Oak Ridge (Tennessee) Y-12 plant and a modern pit facility."
These are the sorts of steps that have been needed for years but been stymied, first by a single, imperious House appropriations subcommittee and now by the Obama administration.
As Gertz reported, "The senators made clear to the president their view that the nuclear-modernization plan should be fully funded beginning with the fiscal 2011 budget and that the new treaty should be sent to the Senate for ratification with the plan."
The signers concluded their letter with another, vitally important shot across the bow: They warned that the administration risked violating the law if it made the grave error of allowing — as the Russians and at least some U.S. negotiators desire — the START follow-on treaty to "limit U.S. missile defenses, space capabilities, or advanced conventional modernization, such as non-nuclear global strike capability."
What makes these points so consequential is the unique math of the United States Senate. Under the Constitution, it takes only 34 votes to prevent the ratification of a treaty. And, as we all now know, thanks to the civics lesson to which the country has been treated in the weeks since the healthcare debate began in earnest, 41 senators can preclude consideration of legislation, including treaties.
In short, President Obama's determination to pursue deep reductions in the U.S. arsenal en route to global denuclearization has just met its first serious obstacle. Even before the full details are known about a START accord that appears problematically set, among other things, to compel America to abandon the robust strategic "triad" that has underpinned deterrence for 50 years this month, this treaty is in trouble.
Vice President Joe Biden reportedly dismissed the prospects of such Senate opposition and felt confident that he could ram through not only a START follow-on but also the previously rejected Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, all without addressing the serious problems identified by the Perry-Schlesinger Commission and now by a decisive faction in the Senate.
The Obama administration must chose: Will it commit to measures to ensure the future viability of America's deterrent, or risk defeat of its arms control agenda at the hands of 41 senators who understand that nothing less is acceptable?
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy, a columnist for the Washington Times, and host of the nationally syndicated program, Secure Freedom Radio.
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