WASHINGTON -- In a crushing setback for the Clinton administration's foreign policy, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected last night a treaty to ban underground nuclear testing, a goal that U.S. presidents have sought since 1958.
The vote marked the first defeat of an international security accord since 1919, when the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles that created the League of Nations after World War I.
The tally, with 48 in favor and 51 against, fell far short of the 67 votes and two-thirds majority required to ratify a treaty. Only four Republicans joined 44 Democrats to support the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, -- dealing President Clinton a humiliating loss on an issue he hoped would mark a major achievement for his presidency.
The four Republicans who backed the treaty were Sens. John H. Chafee of Rhode Island, James M. Jeffords of Vermont, Gordon Smith of Oregon and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, voted present.
"The necessary votes were not here -- they were never here," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. "Today we did the right thing for America."
Clinton sharply disagreed with Lott's conclusion and said he had no intention of giving up the fight. He said he would continue to urge other countries to ratify the treaty and promised that the United States would eventually join them.
"Never before has a serious treaty involving nuclear weapons been handled in such a reckless and ultimately partisan way," Clinton said. "We have to make it clear that it is crazy for America to walk away."
The Senate vote followed days of intensely partisan gamesmanship between Republicans and Democrats that seemed ultimately to spin out of the control of either Lott or the White House.
Opponents contended that the treaty was a flawed and potentially dangerous agreement that would leave the U.S. nuclear arsenal to deteriorate without adequate testing, while allowing rogue nations to cheat and go undetected.
"It cannot accomplish its highly exaggerated stated goal of halting the spread of nuclear weapons," said Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who heads the Foreign Relations Committee.
But advocates of the treaty complained that its defeat would mark a reversal of American leadership on arm control. Some noted that several U.S. allies -- notably Britain, France and Germany -- had urged the Senate to ratify the treaty, which cannot take effect unless all 44 nations with nuclear capability endorse it. Fewer than 30 have done so.
Supporters had predicted that a U.S. refusal would give other nations an excuse for further testing and increased nuclear arsenals. Pakistan, India, Russia and China are among the nuclear powers that have not ratified the pact.
"My heart aches for what we are about to do," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat and the treaty's leading advocate in the Senate. "I'll be back."
More surprising than the outcome of the vote was the Senate's refusal to postpone it. All the Democrats and a majority of Republicans -- including many who opposed the treaty -- had been urging a delay to avoid an international embarrassment.
Clinton made a written appeal to the Senate at the beginning of the week to postpone the vote, and negotiations had been going on behind the scenes for days.
"Sometimes we can work things out that allow these things to come up another day, sometimes we strive mightly to do that," Lott said. "But sometimes you just have to meet your constitutional responsibility."
Lott had tentatively agreed Tuesday to a plan to postpone a treaty vote until at least 2001, "barring unforeseen circumstances." But he was unable to persuade fellow Republicans to go along. Some hard-line opponents, knowing they had the votes to defeat the treaty, wanted the Senate to do so now.
Sen. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire, a former Republican turned independent, was among those objecting to a delay. Speaking before the vote, Smith said: "I think we ought to vote the treaty up or down, and I believe we'll win, so obviously I want the vote."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota protested that Lott had not tried hard enough to rally his troops for a postponement. He said he was incensed that Lott had given only two weeks' notice of the treaty vote -- allowing little time to build support.
"No constitutional obligation has been treated so cavalierly, so casually," Daschle told his colleagues. "This is a terrible, terrible mistake."
Senators on both sides asserted that the treaty is not dead. The Senate can resume consideration of the treaty at any point if a majority so chooses.
But as a practical matter, the treaty has been converted mostly into a campaign issue that the Democrats say they will raise repeatedly next year.
Clinton had hoped for much more when he signed the treaty in 1996, the first world leader to do so. The United States voluntarily stopped underground nuclear testing in 1992.
Under the treaty, more than 300 monitoring stations would be set up around the world to enforce the ban.
Arms control experts are divided over the meaning of the rejection, with some contending that it will deal a major blow to American prestige and others saying the treaty lost much of its importance with the end of the Cold War.
The treaty was proposed in 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a way to prevent the growing arms race with the Soviet Union from spiraling out of control.
Other arms control advocates contend that the accord is still important, and they warn of dangerous consequences from the Senate vote. China and Russia, for example, have powerful incentives to resume nuclear weapons testing. Neither has the money or expertise to maintain its nuclear arsenal through the computer simulations and non-nuclear experiments that the United States now uses.
Conservatives in China have backed testing of the nation's new advanced weapons designs, which allegedly have been improved through spying against the United States.
The Russian nuclear labs are virtually bankrupt, and a resumption of testing could be the only way for Moscow to determine whether its arsenal still works. The test ban treaty is widely seen as a legacy of President Boris N. Yeltsin. The coming Russian elections could sweep into power politicians eager to set it aside.
"I'm sure a lot of people in Russia and China will say, 'We've got problems with these weapons -- we should simply test,' " said Spurgeon Keeny, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
Some Clinton administration officials say they worry that the United States will have less credibility in continuing to pressure India and Pakistan, the world's newest nuclear nations, to sign the treaty. But such pessimism is not shared by all arms control advocates.
Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, a nonprofit watchdog group, suggested that China and Russia will be more concerned with maintaining good economic and political relations with the West than with improving their nuclear arsenals.
And, he said, there is little hope that the United States could prevent rogue nations or nascent nuclear powers from testing if they wanted to.
Besides, the treaty can be resubmitted if the political currents change, Milhollin said.
"This is certainly not all gloom and doom," he said. "It would have been better to have [the treaty] than not have it, but not having it is not a tremendous defeat."