December 4, 2010

MAINE COMPASS: START needs Snowe, Collins to forgo political posturing

For more than a half-century, the leaders of both political parties have been guided by the adage, “Politics stops at the water’s edge” as cited in an editorial in this newspaper earlier this year.

The current failure of Senate Republicans to support the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia (New START), and the recent statement by Republican Sen. John Kyl that he will try to block Senate consideration of the treaty, raise the disturbing possibility that they are abandoning this time-honored tradition.

New START is an extension of the START treaty negotiated by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. It has been the subject of extensive hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations, Armed Services and Intelligence committees. It is believed to enjoy the support of all 58 Democratic and Independent members of the Senate.

Yet only three Republican senators, Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, and Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Bob Corker of Tennessee have committed publicly to voting for the treaty, which requires 67 votes for ratification.

Historically, arms control agreements of this type have received overwhelming bipartisan support. The original START was ratified in 1992 on a vote of 93-6. START II was approved in 1996 by a vote of 87-4.

The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty treaty was ratified in 2003 by a vote of 95-0, including support from Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe.

The failure of Senate Republicans to support New START is even more striking given the overwhelming support the treaty enjoys among the Republican defense establishment. Republican Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, former Republican Secretaries of Defense James Schlesinger and William Cohen and former Republican Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, James Baker and Colin Powell all have endorsed it.

The treaty also enjoys the strong support of our military leadership. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of U.S. strategic nuclear forces, and Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, all have endorsed it.

All of these defense experts and military leaders have said this treaty is critical for our national security.

Nonpartisan support for the treaty is strong in Maine. Hundreds of constituents have sent letters supporting New START to Snowe and Collins. Maine newspapers, including this one, have published several editorials in favor of New START.

This fall, the Maine Medical Association passed a resolution highlighting the potential for devastating human health consequences posed by the detonation of any nuclear weapon. The resolution refers to the importance of New START and calls on Collins and Snowe to vote for ratification.

At the outset of the ratification process, Republicans and Democrats raised substantive questions about verification in the treaty, about its effect on missile defense and on possible modernization of our nuclear forces. Those questions were definitively answered during the hearing process.

But now Kyl is saying that the administration needs to commit more than the $80 billion it already has designated to improve the nuclear weapons production complex to secure his approval.

Even if New START is implemented, the U.S. still will retain 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads.

It is hard not to believe this unwillingness to proceed with New START treaty is pure partisan politics.

Difficult though it might be, both Democrats and Republicans must put aside partisanship from time to time. Now is one of those times.

The idea of waiting until the new senators are seated and repeating the whole political process would be a dismal defeat for this country, not for President Barack Obama.

There is a real urgency about ratifying the treaty now.

When the original START treaty expired in December 2009, we lost the ability to verify Russian compliance to that treaty. Until New START is ratified, we will continue to be unable to monitor the status of the Russian nuclear arsenal.

Furthermore, ratification of New START is critical to our relations with Russia. Without their cooperation, it will be much more difficult to prevent nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and every day we delay ratification compromises those efforts.

It is time for all senators, including Collins and Snowe, to embrace the historic tradition of bipartisan support for nuclear arms control and to announce that they will vote to ratify New START.

And it is imperative that President Obama and the Democratic Senate leadership bring the treaty to the Senate floor and fight to get it ratified.


Dr. Lani Graham, a family practice physician, is co-president of Maine Physicians for Social Responsibility.

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