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Trump wants to renew and revise a key Russian nuclear weapons treaty. It has Democrats nervous

Dems. worry an ambitious U.S. negotiating strategy could doom the treaty effectively ending post-Cold War arms control efforts

Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., speaks during a meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year. Markey has been one of Capitol Hill’s longest-serving advocates for nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., speaks during a meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year. Markey has been one of Capitol Hill’s longest-serving advocates for nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Trump administration’s announcement that it wants to renew a key nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, with some hefty revisions, has Democrats nervous that an overly ambitions U.S. negotiating strategy could doom the treaty and effectively end post-Cold War arms control efforts.

Keen to keep that from happening, Democrats are urging President Donald Trump to do a simple five-year extension of the 2010 New START accord, which is set to expire in 2021, and to scrap plans to get China to join the treaty and include more types of nuclear weapons not now covered, like Russia’s new nuclear-armed underwater drone.

[GOP Rep. says Russia has nuclear weapons in Venezuela but offers no evidence]

“The New START treaty irreplaceability comes from the transparency, stability, and accountability it brings to the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals,” Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, one of Capitol Hill’s longest-serving advocates for arms control and nonproliferation, said in a statement. “As long as Russia continues meeting its treaty commitments, there is no logical reason why New START should not be extended.”

Many arms control proponents fear the administration’s push to include China in New START and for the treaty to cover some of Russia’s new nuclear weapon delivery systems is designed to fail. That’s because up until now Beijing has been allergic to suggestions it participate in arms control treaties and Moscow already rebuffed entreaties during the Obama administration to consider a broader follow-on to New START.

These analysts and lawmakers are particularly suspicious of White House national security adviser John Bolton’s involvement in the treaty negotiations, as he historically has been one of the treaty’s most vocal critics and as recently as 2017 was urging Trump to exit the accord.

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“Those who are calling for bringing new kinds of weapons into the extension process or adding new parties like China are really talking about a new treaty,” said Joan Rohlfing, president of the nonpartisan Nuclear Threat Initiative think tank, in remarks at an April conference of the Arms Control Association. “It’s disingenuous.”

Under New START, the number of strategic warheads that the U.S. and Russia can deploy is capped at 1,550 apiece spread out across a maximum of 700 long-range delivery systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, heavy bombers and ballistic missile submarines.

The treaty allows for a single five-year extension and requires only agreement by the two countries’ leaders to go into effect. But if New START is renegotiated or amended, it would have to come back before the Senate for a ratification vote, which requires a two-thirds majority.

The fate of the treaty is approaching an inflection point. With the death last week of former Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, and the retirement this year of Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the number of current and former Republican lawmakers who can be counted on to work across the aisle in championing arms control is growing smaller.

In fact, late last year, more than two dozen GOP senators signed a letter to Trump urging him in his deliberations over whether “to extend or replace” New START to consider the “possibility of having to deal with more than one peer competitor at a time, which calls into question the limits on U.S. warheads” — an apparent reference to China.

The letter was organized by former Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, who retired for the second time from Congress in January but is expected to remain active in any debates about the future of New START.

With no prominent Republicans at this point showing much daylight between them and administration’s nuclear strategy, it’s been left mostly to Democratic lawmakers and their outside allies to do the brainstorming of how New START can be saved.

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Carrot or stick approach

Now that Democrats control the House, they are significantly better positioned than they were last year to protect New START.

If House Democrats include policy riders that prohibit the Pentagon from stockpiling strategic weapons above the ceiling set by New START in must-pass measures, like the fiscal 2020 defense spending and defense policy laws, it could disincentivize the Trump administration from abandoning the treaty. That’s even if Senate Republicans seek to water down the House language, according to arms control advocates.

In the Senate, Markey this week sought to rally Democrats around such tactics. The Foreign Relations Committee member introduced legislation that would prohibit spending federal funds until 2026 to increase the nuclear arsenal above New START levels if Trump does not renew the treaty.

That’s one version of the stick approach. An even harsher approach would be for House Democrats to make continued funding for modernizing all three legs of the U.S. strategic triad — an especially expensive prospect at $1.2 trillion and counting — contingent on a simple extension of New START.

Frank Rose, a former assistant secretary of State for arms control, verification and compliance in the Obama administration, said he thinks it is possible for Democrats to explicitly tie continued funding of the triad, which encompasses the ICBMS, submarines and bombers that can deliver the 1,550 long-range warheads the U.S. is legally allowed to deploy, to New START.

A similar approach was taken nearly a decade ago by Kyl and Senate Republicans to extract a concession from President Barack Obama to agree to the expensive nuclear modernization plan in order to win enough votes to ratify New START.

“I certainly believe that the building blocks are in place to achieve a bipartisan deal on New START extension and strategic nuclear modernization,” Rose, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an email, adding for that to happen Trump has to find an “interlocutor” who has both the trust of congressional Democrats and the clout to ensure the deal is implemented on the administration’s end. “Six months ago I would have told you that person was Secretary [of Defense James] Mattis, but honestly, I don’t know who that person is today.”

A carrot approach would be for Democrats to drop some or all of their objections to divisive aspects of Trump’s nuclear weapons strategy, which include developing and testing ground-launched missiles currently banned by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. The U.S. has said it will abandon the INF treaty and the action will be finalized in August. The administration also wants funding to develop a new class of lower-yield nuclear warheads that arms control advocates warn could increase the likelihood of a nuclear war.

“We’re looking tactically as to how do we achieve the goal of keeping New START alive,” Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez said, while acknowledging that nuclear arsenal funding is on the table. “The president’s approach to it is pie in the sky, is risky to the core and is already — by his other actions on the INF — on the way to starting a nuclear arms race, which we do not need. We haven’t decided yet strategically which way to go, but we’re thinking about those options.”

But it is House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith who is expected to play the most decisive role in any Democratic strategy for saving New START. The Washington Democrat has been notably critical of the ever-growing price tag of modernizing all three legs of the U.S. triad.

While Smith is seen as open to a smaller U.S. nuclear arsenal if aspects of the triad modernization plan are trimmed, he presides over a HASC Democratic membership that is largely supportive of nuclear modernization and to the right of much of their party on national security issues. A number of them are military service veterans like Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia. That could make it difficult for Smith to muster enough votes to advance a defense policy measure that explicitly threatens arsenal modernization if New START is not renewed.

For now though, the roughly half-dozen Democrats interviewed by CQ Roll Call indicated they believe they still have some runway to sort out what their best options are without having to contemplate distasteful possibilities like supporting funding for new types of U.S. nuclear weapons.

“I think with the nature of how politics exists right now, I think that we will be able to accomplish both in a bipartisan manner,” said HASC member Ruben Gallego of Arizona, referring to New START extension and nuclear modernization. “So I don’t think necessarily we have to cut that deal in that manner, just yet.”

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