What the US midterm elections mean for arms control

The impact of the election of Tea Party-backed Republicans in the November 2010 midterms on President Barack Obama’s nuclear non-proliferation agenda.

The injection of a small number of Tea Party-backed members into the Senate for the first time, such as Ron Johnson in Wisconsin and Rand Paul in Kentucky, has the potential to be troublesome on the arms control front if they coalesce behind the leadership of the reelected Jim DeMint. Senator DeMint, who has taken on the mantle of Tea Party leader in Congress, is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is opposed to the New START treaty on the ground that it weakens US national security.

Mr Paul has already been talking about forming a Tea Party caucus in the Senate, where the Democrats retained control in the November 2nd midterms despite losing six seats to Republicans. However the Tea Party influence goes beyond the simple number of elected Congressmen and women as the movement has pushed hitherto mainstream members of the Republican Party further to the right, which could have profound implications for the national security debate.

The New START treaty, providing for cuts in the deployed strategic nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia, was passed by the Senate committee (by 14-4) last August and must attract 67 positive votes in the full Senate to be ratified. The role of Minority Whip Jon Kyl – who has thrown up roadblocks and attached conditions for supporting START – remains critical. Furthermore, the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, has made it clear that his “single most important” goal is to deny President Barack Obama a second term, and is therefore unlikely to be helpful to the administration in achieving its goals.

The first option for the Democrats would be to have the Senate vote in the lame duck session on New START as close to November 15th as possible. This would be the treaty’s best chance of being adopted, however it is not clear that it will come to the floor because of other pressing issues such as the federal budget and the extension of Bush-era tax cuts which remain to be voted. The foreign relations committee ranking member, Senator Dick Lugar, supports the treaty but has expressed pessimism about the chances of adopting the treaty after January because of the make-up of the new Senate whose members may ask for the debate to be reopened. It remains unclear whether the new Senate members will be swayed by the argument that the lack of a treaty means that the US has lost the power to verify the Russians’ strategic nuclear arsenal.

If New START is not ratified, the chances of the Senate ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty – a more significant arms control measure that the modest strategic arms reduction treaty – are even more dim. As a result of the treaty being voted down in 1999 thanks to the efforts of Senator Kyl, the Obama administration will only submit the treaty for ratification if it is certain to be approved.

In terms of personnel change, Russ Feingold, a three-term Senator and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was the most prominent scalp claimed by a Tea Party-backed Republican, Ron Johnson, in the midterms. But otherwise the changes on the Committee will be minor because of the small number of its members up for reelection in 2010.

More significant will be the changes in the House Armed Services Committee and its subcommittees which will now be led by Republicans, with the top four Democrats now gone. John Spratt, a 14-term Congressman who was defeated in South Carolina, was the most outspoken advocate for the removal of US tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.


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