Clinton asks Senate to postpone vote on nuclear test ban pact; President stops short of GOP demand to shelve treaty for rest of his term


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton formally requested yesterday that the Senate put off a vote on a controversial nuclear test ban treaty, but he stopped short of meeting the Republicans' demand that he shelve the treaty for the remainder of his term.

Democrats and Republicans characterized the gesture as another move in a political chess game that will continue today as debate on the treaty resumes. It's widely acknowledged that the treaty lacks the Senate votes to gain ratification.

A resolution of the issue -- which both sides say has enormous implications for national and global security -- is not expected until shortly before the vote is due: either late tonight or tomorrow.

"I firmly believe the treaty is in the national interest," Clinton wrote to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. "However, I recognize there are a significant number of senators who have honest disagreements.

"I believe that proceeding to a vote under these circumstances would severely harm the national security of the United States, damage our relationship with our allies and undermine our historic leadership over forty years in reducing the nuclear threat," Clinton said.

"Accordingly, I request that you postpone consideration of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on the Senate floor."

A spokesman for Lott called the president's letter "merely a first step" in winning an agreement to put off the treaty vote.

"As the majority leader has stated all along, not only must the treaty be withheld from consideration at this time, agreement must be reached that it not come up again at any time this Congress," said John Czwartacki, Lott's spokesman.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat who is the treaty's leading advocate, chided the Republicans' hesitation.

"This should be an easy call," Biden said. "The president has asked for a delay. Most Democrats and many Republicans support a delay. It's clearly in our national interest to put off this vote without any further wrangling."

The treaty, which Clinton negotiated in 1996, would ban all underground nuclear testing and set up more than 300 monitoring stations around the world to enforce the ban.

It would take effect after the 44 nations with nuclear capability ratify it.

Democrats call the treaty a landmark agreement that marks the culmination of five decades of American efforts to curb nuclear proliferation.

But many Republicans say it would have little effect on rogue nations and would only serve to weaken U.S. defenses.

Senate support falls far short of the two-thirds majority, 67 votes, needed for ratification.

Democratic senators had clamored for weeks for a debate on the treaty, only to have Lott call their bluff with a hastily scheduled vote. Clinton at first pledged an all-out effort to win the treaty's approval but within days was advised by Senate Democrats as well as Republicans that he couldn't win.

Since early last week, the two sides have been publicly negotiating the terms under which the vote would be put off.

Most of the senators, even many Republicans who oppose the treaty, agree with Clinton that a formal rejection of the treaty would be an international embarrassment that could undermine U.S. leadership on nuclear issues.

But Lott and some ardent treaty opponents, notably the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, are demanding Clinton's capitulation on the issue.

First they said the president had to personally request that the treaty be withdrawn from consideration. Next they said the request had to be in writing.

Then they said Clinton had to promise not to revive the treaty during the remainder of his presidency, which coincides with the end of this term of Congress.

Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, said he doesn't want to postpone the vote.

"I think the Senate must vote on this treaty and defeat it," Kyl said on "Fox News Sunday." He said that would force the government to "go back to the drawing board" to negotiate a better treaty.

Daschle, the Democratic leader, said late last week that he thought it might not be possible to achieve the unanimous agreement required to formally postpone the treaty.

He worked on an alternate strategy: a long-shot parliamentary maneuver that would require only a majority vote.

Clinton's letter appeared to be aimed at impressing the handful of Republicans needed for that maneuver.

Lott's spokesman predicted that the tactic would fail. "It is an affront and an assault on the majority," which Lott would make a test of party loyalty, Czwartacki said.

Pub Date: 10/12/99

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