9-Month Halt of Nuclear Tests Voted by Senate
Defying President Bush’s wishes, the Senate voted by a veto-proof majority Monday to suspend U.S. nuclear weapons testing for nine months and eventually to halt all such tests after 1996. The vote was 68 to 26.
The White House had said in advance that Bush would veto the legislation if it included a moratorium on nuclear tests that was co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) and Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.).
Seventeen Republicans joined 51 Democrats in voting for the eventual nuclear test ban, virtually repudiating Bush on a question where his position was clear and the usually sensitive national security issue was involved. Twenty-three GOP lawmakers and only three Democrats voted against it.
The split in Republican ranks apparently reflected the President’s diminishing influence on Capitol Hill with members of his own party. His Democratic rival, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, has proposed a sharp reduction in the number of nuclear tests and a comprehensive test ban.
The Senate action followed House approval last June of a one-year ban on nuclear weapons tests unless the President certifies that Russia or another nation that was part of the former Soviet Union conducted a nuclear test during that period. The House bill was passed 237 to 167, far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
The surprisingly large Senate vote came after Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who is one of the most respected voices on military matters, said he would vote for the curbs on nuclear testing despite misgivings about some details.
Nunn said some changes in the proposed restrictions on nuclear testing would be included in a Defense Department authorization bill that the Senate will consider next week, indicating that he favors a delay until 1997 or 1998 in the overall test ban.
The testing provisions were added to a $22-billion appropriations bill for energy programs and federal water projects, assuring that there will be strict limitations on U.S. nuclear tests in the bill that finally passes Congress. Senate and House differences on the moratorium will be reconciled in a Senate-House conference.
While proponents insisted that the Senate’s action would encourage negotiation of a comprehensive nuclear test ban, opponents argued that a moratorium would block Pentagon tests to ensure the safety and reliability of the American nuclear arsenal.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney termed the legislation “irresponsible” in a letter read to the Senate by Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), floor manager of the bill.
But Majority Leader Mitchell argued that the proposal was endorsed by Sen. James J. Exon (D-Neb.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces and nuclear deterrence.
“This Administration is frozen into Cold War priorities,” the Democratic leader said, noting that a U.S. suspension of tests would be an appropriate response to testing moratoriums adopted by France and by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.
“If there were ever an opportunity to help buttress Yeltsin against the military men who would resurrect the Russian nuclear arsenal, the moratorium provides one,” Mitchell added.
Supporters of the proposed restrictions added that the government would be allowed to conduct as many as 15 weapons tests for safety for three years after the moratorium expires next July 1 until a final cutoff of all testing on Sept. 30, 1996.
If Russia or any other country conducted a nuclear test after this date, however, the ban on U.S. testing would be lifted.
“Surely there has to be some kind of end to this activity,” Hatfield told the Senate. “Are we really locked into the proposition that testing goes on in perpetuity?”
Within the overall limits, however, the bill would allow one test per year from 1993 to 1996 for reliability of nuclear arms if the President declared it necessary for national security and Congress did not disapprove of the test within 60 days.
In addition to the restrictions on tests, the bill also would require the President to report by next March 1 on the weapons that will remain in the U.S. stockpile, proposed safety measures and plans to achieve a comprehensive test ban treaty by Sept. 30, 1996.
Mitchell said in his Senate speech that all the Democrats on Nunn’s committee supported a phaseout of nuclear weapons testing in the relatively near future.
“The prospect of reaching an international accord whereby nuclear nations agree to halt all testing and in the process slam shut the atomic Pandora’s box is no longer a pipe dream,” Exon said. “It is real and within grasp, but only if the United States shows leadership.
“A comprehensive test ban is the key to nuclear non-proliferation,’ Exon added.
A 1963 treaty banned nuclear test explosions above ground, but U.S. underground tests have been continued at a Nevada test site for a variety of reasons, including testing for safety and reliability.
While the House has regularly approved language restricting nuclear tests, supporters of limitations have never before mustered a majority in the Senate.
The end of Communist rule in Moscow and agreements to slash nuclear arsenals in both Russia and the United States set the stage for Monday’s Senate vote.