WASHINGTON -- Crucial support from Majority Leader Trent Lott spurred the Senate on to overwhelming approval last night of a controversial treaty designed to ban development, production and stockpiling of chemical weapons.
Twenty-nine Republicans voted with all 45 Senate Democrats to back the treaty. The 74 votes exceeded the 67 needed for ratification, but Vice President Al Gore presided over the balloting in case he was needed to cast the deciding vote.
The treaty is intended to reinforce and expand an international ban on the use of chemical weapons that has been in place since 1925.
"This vote is an example of America working as it should, putting the country first, reaching across the party lines, working for the common good: It will make our future more secure," President Clinton told reporters shortly after the Senate acted.
Conservative Republican opponents battled in vain throughout the evening, trying to persuade their colleagues to demand changes in the treaty that would require it to be renegotiated.
"The danger is how the American people are being misled by those who have endorsed this treaty into believing that something has been done about chemical weapons," said Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee.
"If we do nothing else in our opposition to this treaty, I hope we can make the American people aware that nothing is being done for their safety."
The outcome only became clear late yesterday after 26 Republicans joined the Democrats to defeat the first of five proposed changes and Lott announced his support for the accord.
"I'm not a big fan of this treaty -- it was a close call," Lott said. He said he had concluded that the United States "is marginally better off with it than without it."
What's more, there were political stakes for his party, he added.
"If I had been fighting this thing, and we would have taken it down, the impression would have been bad," Lott said.
Last night's vote was regarded as a significant victory for both Lott and President Clinton, who made many concessions, including a promise yesterday to the Republican leader that he would withdraw from the treaty if its implementation weakens U.S. defenses or contributes to the spread of chemical weapons instead of their elimination.
Seventy-four other nations have already ratified the treaty, which is scheduled to take effect Tuesday with or without U.S. approval. Still missing from that list, however, are two major powers: Russia and China. And considered unlikely to sign on in the foreseeable future are Iraq, Syria, Libya and North Korea.
Supporters generally avoided extravagant claims about what the accord would accomplish. They acknowledged that it won't rid the world of chemical weapons because the ban is difficult to enforce and some of the most radical nations are not participating. But they argued that U.S. interests would best be served by at least increasing global pressure against the use of poison gas.
"There may be states who will cheat on this agreement, and others who refuse to sign it, but if we are part of the treaty, we will take part in the enforcement," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat. "We will know more about the state of chemical weapons in the world with the treaty than without it."
But opponents argued that the treaty is not simply ineffective. They said ratification would create a false sense of security that chemical weapons are no longer a threat -- when the threat may actually be greater than ever.
"The countries that really matter aren't even going to be governed by this treaty," argued Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican and a leading opponent.
Clinton's promise to Lott was intended to address fears about a treaty provision requiring participating nations to share technology for defending themselves against chemical weapons. Lott and others said they worried that the defensive technology could be turned against the United States and contribute to the proliferation of chemical weapons.
"This commitment went far beyond what I thought he would agree to," said Lott, who called Clinton's promise to withdraw from the treaty if necessary the deciding factor in gaining his support.
But the president's assurances weren't enough for some opponents.
"We know that other countries can sell their technology as well as their system to rogue nations," said Sen. James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican. "It's a scary thing to think we might be putting ourselves in a situation to increase our exposure to chemical weapons."
The Chemical Weapons Convention has been 13 years in the making. Launched by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, it was signed by President George Bush in 1992 near the end of his term. Responsibility for pushing it through to Senate ratification then fell to Democrat Clinton.
Working determinedly to avoid the international embarrassment of Senate defeat of a U.S.-sponsored treaty, Clinton lobbied 25 senators and his administration granted 28 concessions to opponents.
But Lott's prestige was also in the line yesterday. His first full year as majority leader has gotten off to a rocky start as he has been torn between the conservative and moderate factions of the GOP Senate contingent while trying to negotiate with the Democrats and the White House on a variety of issues.
Lott not only needed to be on the winning side, he needed it to be a positive vote, colleagues said.
"I think that when the next election comes along, he doesn't want his guys to be blamed for killing the treaty," said Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat.
Pub Date: 4/25/97