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Inside the Beltway

Sinking the Test Ban Treaty

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Politics generally follows a well-defined set of rules, but when hatred, mistrust and partisanship dominate the scene, as they clearly have in recent months, those rules get washed away like tiny grains of sand in a pounding surf.

The demise of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty bears stark testimony to the radioactive cloud that hangs over our nation's capital today. Here's the inside story. Judge for yourself.

For more than two years, Republicans, led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC), bottled the Test Ban Treaty up by refusing to hold hearings.

For more than two years, the White House studiously avoided wooing GOP internationalists like John Warner (R-VA), Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Richard Lugar (R-IN). Instead of carefully establishing a broad base of public advocacy for the treaty, as President Bush did for many months before he proceeded with the Persian Gulf War, President Clinton sniped at treaty opponents almost whimsically, as the political climate dictated.

Conservative Republicans, for whom hatred of the President has become mantra, sat back waiting patiently for the opportunity to humiliate him. Their chance came in October.

Scroll back to early September, when the Senate returned from its summer recess. With Helms stymying all attempts by Foreign Relations Committee Democrats to bring the treaty up for consideration, Ranking Member Joseph Biden (D-DE) took to the Senate floor, threatening to tie up business until Republicans agreed to consider the treaty.

Byron Dorgan (D-ND) joined the fray, and as the rhetoric became more rancorous, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) sent out a clear signal that he was prepared to bring the treaty up for an immediate Senate vote, one that was guaranteed to generate far fewer than the 67 supporters needed for ratification.

Democrats can count noses as well as Republicans. So Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) stepped in with a promise to call off the attack dogs if Lott withdrew his threat to schedule a vote. Reliable sources inside the ranks of the Senate Democrats reported that the assault on the GOP had been a carefully orchestrated political maneuver. The treaty, according to these sources, would not hit the policy agenda of either party until the spring of 2000, at the earliest.

With the tacit cease fire between the warring Senate factions in place, Capitol Hill debate on the treaty fizzled out. But, planners at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue had different thoughts.

For some time, according to White House insiders, presidential advisors had been split on how to handle the treaty. One group urged delay, possibly until after the next election, when the GOP's visceral hatred of the White House occupant would be not be the dominant factor.

Another group argued that there was a political advantage to be gained by forcing a vote. This group saw the outcome as a "win-win" situation. In the unlikely event that the treaty passed, the President would claim credit. If the more probable scenario of treaty defeat became the reality, the Democrats would have a prime issue for the 2000 campaign.

A third group, bolstered by outside non-proliferation advocates, argued in favor of a vote, because they genuinely believed that they could win it, even though the White House had done little spade work and Senate Republicans were loathe to give the President credit for anything if they could help it.

Matters came to a head the last week in September. Under the questionable pretext of scheduling a bipartisan event, the White House came into possession of a letter that had been signed by thirty-two Nobel Laureates [See page 6] advocating treaty ratification. The letter, addressed to all members of the Senate, had not been released, pending Senate Foreign Relations Committee action, which had remained stalled.

On Tuesday, September 30, Senate Republicans got wind of the planned White House event featuring the Nobelists. It became the hair trigger needed for an immediate vote on treaty ratification.

Majority Leader Lott addressed the Senate early Wednesday morning, taking most of his colleagues by surprise, when he asked for unanimous consent to schedule a vote. The Democrats were in a bind. Most of them had long called for Senate action: How could they explain to their constituents that they had opposed the vote? In the end, none of them did.

As members debated Lott's motion, Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and Pete Domenici worked furiously behind the scenes to get the vote postponed. Cancellation of the Nobel event, scheduled for the following Wednesday, was key. But the "win-win" group at the White House held sway, and the President refused to back down, according to an aide.

Predictions that the treaty wouldn't even get a majority of Senators to support it only fueled the partisan fires. When the vote finally occurred, the treaty failed 48-51, with but four Republicans voting in favor of it.

The GOP Clinton-haters had made their point, and the Democrats had their campaign issue. The treaty was the big loser.

Stanley Greenberg, a prominent Democratic pollster, observed that the White House took a huge risk in pursuing its strategy. While it is true that eighty percent of the American electorate supports the treaty, the issue is buried so far down on the public's wish list, that the campaign pay-off may be nil. Time will tell whether Greenberg's right.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette