Obama may face fight on treaties

Some Democrats among skeptics; 67-vote majority needed in Senate

By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / October 25, 2009

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WASHINGTON - President Obama’s vision of global cooperation - symbolized by his surprise Nobel Peace Prize - is in for a crucial test in the months ahead when he begins sending a series of treaties to the US Senate, where skepticism among Republicans and some Democrats will make approval exceedingly difficult, according to government officials and specialists.

Marking a major reversal from the Bush administration, which considered most treaties to be too restrictive of US sovereignty, the Obama administration says it will seek ratification of three major pacts aimed at reducing nuclear weapons. It also will seek approval of a set of regulations to manage use of the oceans and, by the end of the president’s first term, a new treaty to combat global climate change.

Starting in early 2010 with a new deal with Russia to reduce nuclear arms, Obama’s agenda will have to overcome opposition on Capitol Hill, where it will be a daunting task to secure the two-thirds Senate majority re quired for treaty ratification.

“I think he is going to have a real fight on his hands,’’ said Steven Groves, a specialist in international law at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

The first stop for the treaties will be the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by Democratic Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, a key Obama ally. The committee has already begun plotting strategy for how to combat the opposition and enlist the necessary support.

“Kerry has been laying the ground work,’’ including high-level meetings with administration officials and fellow senators, said Frederick Jones, a committee spokesman. “These treaties are a priority.’’

International treaties are signed by the president, but under the Constitution must be ratified by the Senate to become law. They need at least 67 votes to pass, not a simple majority of 51, typically requiring strong support from the president’s own party and a significant number of votes from the opposing party. Democrats now control 60 seats in the Senate, counting two independents who usually vote with the party.

Obtaining 67 votes has proved difficult under the best of circumstances and helps explain why fewer than 20 major security treaties have been ratified since the end of World War II, according to David Auerswald, a professor of strategy and policy at the National War College in Washington.

“The foreign policy consensus in this country has disappeared on many issues,’’ said Auerswald, a leading specialist on treaties. “Given that the Democrats only have 60 of the 67 votes necessary to approve a treaty, they have to hold their ranks and pick off seven Republicans. Yet moderate Republicans are a dying breed in the Senate, making the Democrats’ task that much harder.’’

But Obama’s commitment to arms control treaties is central to his plan, unveiled in a speech last spring, to take steps toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons and deemphasizing US reliance on them.

In awarding him the Peace Prize last month, the Nobel judges attached “special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons’’ and lauded him “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.’’

Some of the nuclear weapons goals will be sought under a new treaty, now being negotiated with Russia, that would substantially reduce the number of each country’s arms. Designed to replace START II, the arms reduction pact ratified in 1991, the follow-up treaty could reduce the number of warheads on each side to 1,500 and the number of missiles to carry them to 500, including those launched from underground silos, ships, or aircraft.

Already, Republicans are outlining a series of demands that could hold up ratification. For example, the Senate Republican Policy Committee, an advisory group that formulates GOP positions, said in a 16-page report issued last month that a “prerequisite to any reduction’’ must be “a comprehensive plan to modernize the US nuclear weapons complex.’’

Senate Democrats have also expressed concerns over the proposed, but unspecified, cuts to land-based nuclear missiles. “We would strongly oppose a reduction below the current force structure of 450 missiles,’’ 11 senators, more than half of them Democrats, wrote last month to Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates.

After START II, the administration’s next pitch will be for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty outlawing nuclear weapons testing, which has been signed so far by 180 countries and ratified by 145.

Nine countries must still join, including the United States and China, before it can take effect.

“Bringing the treaty into force will strengthen and reenergize the global nonproliferation regime and, in doing so, enhance our own security,’’ Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week.

But the pact was defeated by the Senate in 1999, failing to win even a simple majority and falling 19 votes shy of what was needed for ratification.

And many of the same concerns are being raised anew: namely that all nuclear tests may not be detectable and that the United States - which has not conducted a test since 1992 - may have to resume testing to make sure its nuclear deterrent is ready.

Both objections were aired last week by Senator Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican who congressional aides said is already lining up votes to try to kill the test ban treaty.

Another arms control priority is negotiating and ratifying a treaty ending production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, the main ingredients of nuclear bombs.

Obama hailed a decision by the United Nations to begin negotiations for the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty earlier this year, saying that “a verified cutoff treaty is an essential element of my vision for a world free of nuclear weapons.’’

But there remain many unanswered questions, said Susan J. Koch, a former arms control official at the departments of State and Defense, including what will be covered, whether all future production would be outlawed, and how it will be policed.

“Some nuclear powers would be loath to accept the intrusiveness required,’’ she wrote in a recent advisory opinion for a congressional commission.

Also on the Obama agenda is the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which took effect in 1996, but has not been joined by the United States because it has been repeatedly blocked by conservatives in Congress.

The treaty sets guidelines for countries’ use of the world’s oceans, including economic activities and the protection of maritime resources.

It has long been supported by the Navy, but remains unpopular in powerful sectors of the business community that assert it would restrict the ability to mine the seabed for oil, gas, and other natural resources. Conservatives maintain that an international bureaucracy would control the oceans, asserting that recent decisions by the treaty’s governing body would harm US economic interests.

Some express worry that the Obama administration is not doing enough to build the bipartisan consensus that will be needed to get the treaties approved. “The Obama administration would be well advised to reach out,’’ said Ambassador Karl F. Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration.

Overseas, meanwhile, many diplomats say it is vital for Obama to succeed.

“It is absolutely essential that the US ratify all these treaties,’’ said Abdallah Baali, the ambassador to the United States from Algeria and a former UN official. “We have a serious chance to move forward. The United States can show the path. When the United States is in the back seat you can forget about it.’’

Bryan Bender can be reached at