TCS Daily

Congress Returns for a Month-Long Test on Its Commitment to Missile Defense

By Hank Cooper - September 4, 2001 12:00 AM

They're back!!! After its Summer recess, Congress will rush to authorize and appropriate funds for Pentagon programs for next fiscal year, which begins on October 1. This will be an interesting - and critical - four weeks.

Will the people's representatives support the President's agenda to move beyond the ABM Treaty and build defenses to end America's vulnerability to even a single ballistic missile as soon as possible? Or will they block his agenda, supporting the arguments of Russia and others who prefer that we retain that Cold War relic that blocks even testing the most effective ways to defend America? In short, will Congress give Russia a de facto veto over U.S. programs?

The President's agenda has been well known and consistent since his campaign promise to the American people that he would build an effective defense at the earliest possible date - and he and his spokesmen have been very plainspoken, at home and abroad, about his intention to keep this promise.

From Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld's February meeting in Munich with European leaders and the Russians present to the most recent international meetings involving Cabinet and sub-Cabinet level officials, all have made clear that the United States intends to leave the ABM Treaty when our planned testing requires it. And they have told Congress this would happen in a matter of months, rather than years.

Senior officials have told the Russians that the President prefers that Russia join the United States in moving beyond the Treaty and establishing a cooperative strategic regime with defenses and reduced nuclear arms. But they have also emphasized that if Russia does not cooperate, the United States will withdraw from the Treaty.

High level talks with the Russians have been frequent since July 22, when President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Genoa, Italy, and agreed to discuss a cooperative approach. Secretary Rumsfeld and President Bush's National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, had high-level talks in Moscow during August. These separate trips were preceded by a high level Russian delegation meeting with U.S. officials in Washington in early August. In late August, a high level U.S. delegation traveled to Moscow to prepare for a mid-September meeting between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov - who have discussed these issues previously.

Presidents Bush and Putin will meet again in October at an Asia-Pacific Economic Conference in Shanghai, China - and they could discuss these issues there. And then President Putin is scheduled to visit President Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch in November. That would be an excellent time for an agreement on moving beyond the Treaty.

So far, the Russians have not indicated they will join the U.S. in leaving the Treaty. This is hardly surprising. Among other things, they want to see whether Congress will back President Bush's plans to move ahead with defenses that will soon "bump-up" against the Treaty. And that answer will be provided by "the battle of the budget" in September, before Presidents Bush and Putin meet again. If Congress backs the President, chances for a Bush-Putin agreement are much improved - and if they don't, agreement is less likely. We should build defenses in any case.

Just before its August recess, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) voted to overrule those who oppose the President's plans - but there will be another fight when the authorization bill is brought to the House floor in September. Congressman John Spratt (D-SC) has indicated he will try again to cut the missile defense budget and limit how the Pentagon can spend what is authorized.

The Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), has indicated he will fight all unilateral efforts to move beyond the Treaty - in effect, giving Russia a veto over U.S. missile defense programs. When the SASC meets this week to mark-up the Senate's Authorization bill, he likely will seek to reduce the President's missile defense budget, approve spending only for Treaty-compliant activities, and place bureaucratic obstacles in the way of the Pentagon's efforts to build effective defenses. That effort can be stopped in Committee only if defense minded Democrats, such as Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT), join the Republicans. Then that welcome result would have to be sustained on the Senate floor, when additional challenges seem inevitable.

The outcome of this fight is far from sure: September could see Congress supporting the President or several less desirable outcomes - e.g., a presidential veto, a budget impasse that could shut down the Defense Department, and a continuing resolution to continue underfunded Defense programs at their current funding levels.

Whatever happens will either strengthen or weaken President Bush's hand in his Shanghai and Texas meetings with Mr. Putin. The pace of ending America's continuing vulnerability to even a single ballistic missile is at stake!

Will Congress support the President - or oppose him? That, indeed, is the question.

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