Nuclear spanking

The Senate rejects the test ban treaty amid partisan bickering.

Published October 13, 1999 12:19PM (EDT)

Senate Republicans spanked President Clinton Wednesday, killing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on a mostly party-line 51-48 vote. The move was seen as a deliberate embarrassment of Clinton by the Republican leadership, whose relationship with the president has been strained to the point of nonexistence.

The vote marked the first time an international arms treaty negotiated by a president has been rejected by the Senate. Once it became clear that the treaty would never get the support of the 67 senators required for ratification, Democrats did everything they could to delay a vote. In a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott earlier this week, Clinton lobbied for a delay on the vote, in what some saw as a concession of defeat.

"I firmly believe the treaty is in the national interest," Clinton wrote. "However, I recognize that there are a significant number of senators who have honest disagreements. I believe that proceeding to a vote under these circumstances would severely harm the national security of the United States, damage our relationship with our allies, and undermine our historic leadership over 40 years, through administrations Republican and Democratic, in reducing the nuclear threat. Accordingly, I request that you postpone consideration" of the treaty.

No dice.

Minority Leader Tom Daschle then offered a written pledge that Democrats wouldn't use the issue as campaign ammo if Republicans agreed to delay the vote. He, too, came up snake eyes -- another example of the erosion of trust between the two parties.

All day Wednesday, the White House and Senate Democrats eyed Lott hopefully. Reportedly Lott spent much of the day trying to gauge the commitment of deeply conservative Republican senators -- namely, Foreign Relations Chairman Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, John Kyl of Arizona, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas -- to see if they would allow the treaty vote to be delayed. Any motion to delay a vote would have required unanimous consent.

Democrats in the White House and Senate said that most of the opposition was borne of an ugly marriage of spite and partisanship.

"Lott's been real slimy on this," said a White House staffer. "He doesn't have a statesman's bone in his body to do the right thing." The staffer said that Lott -- who was unable to "get" the president during impeachment, and anticipating a loss in the upcoming budget battle -- finally saw his chance to stick it to Clinton.

Republicans dismissed the partisan charges, hammering away on the merits of the treaty. "This is a dangerous treaty," said Helms, "it would undermine American security."

The treaty "will undermine confidence in the safety, reliability and credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent," Inhofe said. "Contrary to how it is advertised, this treaty will not prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It is not verifiable. Its long-term effects will harm, not protect, national security ... Respected experts have testified that testing is necessary to assure the safety and reliability of our critical deterrent forces. Confirming the treaty's unverifiability, the CIA has revealed that it could not be sure whether Russia conducted a nuclear test just last week.

"I believe that in the White House, they honestly believe that if we all stand in a circle, and we all hold hands, and we all disarm, then everyone is going to be happy," Inhofe said. "But I am not at all satisfied with that."

Kyl observed that "some have urged that we put the vote off out of concern that rejection would send an undesirable message to the world. I believe, however, that we should vote precisely because the world would get a desirable message that the Senate took a stand that treaties such as this must meet at least minimum standards for sensible arms control. The CTBT fails that test. It is a sloppy, altogether substandard piece of work, and it deserves rejection."

Additionally, many noted that the recent coup in Pakistan, which served to highlight the instability of the world, didn't exactly help sway Lott onto the side of peaceniks like Physicians for Social Responsibility. In the Senate, as in life, timing is everything.

Whatever his reason, late Wednesday afternoon Lott plunged ahead with the ratification vote. Underscoring the vitriol in this debate, Lott even broke with normal Senate protocol, denying speaking time to both Daschle and Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.

When Byrd was finally given the floor, he conveyed dismay at the demise of civility in Congress' upper chamber. "I've been in this body now for 41 years," Byrd said. "I was majority leader for four years, then minority leader for six years, then majority leader for two years ... As majority leader and as minority leader, I never once objected to a senator's request to speak for a few minutes."

Many Democrats echoed Byrd's sentiment, pointing out that many of the Republicans out front on this issue were former bomb-throwers in the more rambunctious House of Representatives. "Those guys have no respect for the Senate," groused one Democratic staffer.

Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware cited the absence of "good manners" during the acrimonious debate, adding, "My heart aches that we're about to vote down this treaty."

Democratic senators blasted Republicans for using an international treaty as a means to wage partisan battles, to "embarrass the president overseas." "If politics doesn't stop at the water's edge," Daschle said, quoting a senatorial axiom, "nothing does when it comes to this import."

Republicans countered that Democrats had only themselves to blame for how things turned out. "The president and his party demanded this vote [and] agreed to terms under which it was scheduled," Inhofe said. They "should live with the consequences."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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