WASHINGTON -- A sweeping nuclear test-ban treaty is facing almost certain rejection by the Senate after supporters and opponents scrambled last night to avert a vote they feared could produce a political and diplomatic embarrassment.
Both sides acknowledged that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, negotiated by President Clinton in 1996, was far short of the two-thirds majority required for ratification.
Democrats favor the treaty as necessary to prevent the further development of nuclear weapons.
Republican senators are almost unanimously opposed to the underground test ban, saying they fear that many nations would be able to violate the treaty and avoid detection.
But neither the Senate Republican majority nor the White House relished the prospect of a defeat for the treaty -- something they say could undermine decades of U.S. efforts to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and perhaps tarnish re-election campaigns.
"There are a number of Republican senators and a number of Democratic senators who think it's unwise to hold a vote if it's cast along party lines and the treaty gets defeated overwhelmingly," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat who has been a leading supporter of the treaty.
Negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle snagged on the issue of whether a vote on the treaty -- now scheduled for next Tuesday -- could be rescheduled before the current session of Congress ends next year, as the Democrats want.
"If we're going to vote on this issue in this Congress, it's going to be next Tuesday or Wednesday," Lott said. "But we're still exchanging ideas."
Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, one of the Republicans who oppose the treaty at this point but are seeking to put off the vote, said one obstacle to an agreement is that some Republicans want to kill the treaty outright.
"There are two or three people who know they have the votes to win, and they want to go ahead with it," Domenici said.
Clinton, who got the word from Biden yesterday that the treaty would be rejected, said he was dismayed by the lack of Senate support.
"I think for the Senate to reject it would send a terrible message," Clinton said at the White House.
"It would say to the whole world: Look, America's not going to test, but if you want to test, go right ahead. We're not interested in leading the world toward nonproliferation any more."
Atmospheric nuclear tests have been banned since the 1950s, but testing has been conducted underground for decades by the 44 nations that have nuclear capability. India and Pakistan both conducted nuclear tests last year, heightening attention to the issue.
The United States has not conducted nuclear tests since 1992.
The new treaty would ban underground tests and set up an international network of 320 monitoring stations to verify compliance.
China, Russia haven't signed
A total of 154 countries signed the agreement. But only 23 of the nations with nuclear capability have ratified it, and neither China nor Russia is among them.
The treaty would not take effect until it is ratified by all 44 nuclear powers.
Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and is perhaps the leading critic of the treaty, mocked the White House this week over reports that the CIA suspects that Russia conducted low-level nuclear tests last month but lacks the technology to prove it.
"This is an ill-conceived treaty which our own Central Intelligence Agency acknowledges that it cannot verify," Helms told the Senate.
"Approving the [treaty] would leave the American people unsure of the safety and reliability of America's nuclear deterrent, while at the same time completely unprotected from ballistic missile attack."
Democrats said the accounts of Russian testing had been overblown. But the reports provided a ready explanation for wavering Republican senators.
All 45 Democrats would support the treaty, their leader said, but a total of 67 Senate votes are required for ratification.
"We're just not ready to do this yet," Specter said.
Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, one of the wavering Republicans, was among the first to call for a delay on the treaty vote.
"I would recommend that we hold off any vote on this treaty until 2001, when a new administration will have the opportunity to rethink our entire arms control strategy," Hagel said.
"This is not a discussion that should be hurried for political or partisan gain."
Democrats' bluff called
In scheduling the treaty vote for next week, Lott had surprised the Democrats by calling their bluff.
For weeks, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, had threatened to block all Senate action unless the Republicans agreed to hold hearings on the treaty, which Helms had intended to ignore indefinitely.
"The treaty has been kept in prison," Dorgan complained.
In response to Dorgan, Lott suddenly offered last week to bring the treaty up for a ratification vote next week. Hearings were hastily scheduled for this week.
Clinton, seeing an opportunity to add to his presidential legacy, committed himself to an intense lobbying effort intended to secure the necessary votes.
But it quickly became clear that doubts about the wisdom of the treaty, even among senators inclined to be supportive, were too deep to be overcome so quickly.
Biden said he had been approached by many Republican senators who told him privately that they would vote against the treaty if forced to, but would rather not -- especially those up for re-election next year.
"I don't know of anybody at all, Democrat or Republican, even in very conservative states, who would want to have as the issue to determine whether they get back to the Senate or not whether the people of their state are for killing a treaty that says nobody can explode nuclear weapons," Biden said.
Domenici, one of several senators invited to a dinner with Clinton at the White House last night, said he planned to make a personal appeal to the president to request that the treaty be withdrawn from consideration.
Domenici said he could not support the treaty at this time because he was not yet satisfied that the United States has the technology to ensure that other countries abide by it.
"I'm trying to convince the White House, Democrats and others that this is not the right time to bring up this treaty," Domenici said.
"That if it's going to lose, we should pull it and wait for another day."
Pub Date: 10/06/99