Torn between his roles as legislative leader and presumed Republican presidential candidate, Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas must soon decide the fate of a treaty that would ban chemicals as a weapon of war.
The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), now awaiting ratification in the Senate, obliges signatories to eliminate all chemical weapons within 10 years, as well as facilities that could be used to develop and manufacture chemical arms.
The treaty enjoys broad Senate support but is unpopular with a handful of influential Senate conservatives, which has left Mr. Dole - who must decide how soon to bring the treaty to a vote in the Senate - in an awkward position.
"Dole would like to bring a treaty presented to the Senate by [then] Vice President [George] Bush to conclusion," says a senior Senate source. "On the other hand, he does not want to cross the hard Republican right in an election year."
"How he walks this line is something we'll have to wait and see," adds the source.
Clinton administration officials say if such a treaty had been in effect 10 years ago it might have been possible to limit or prevent Iraq's chemical weapons program.
By requiring member states to bring their domestic laws into conformity with the treaty, it might have given the Japanese government broader authority to take preventive action against a terrorist group that launched a lethal gas attack in a Tokyo subway last year, US officials say.
For their part, critics, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, say the treaty is fatally flawed because the states most likely to use chemical weapons won't ratify it.
"The question is, is this going to be a global ban?" asks one GOP congressional source. "No it isn't, because the countries you most want to sign will not sign it. So it could give a false sense of security."
Advocating a step that would slow the ratification process, several Republican staff members have urged that the Senate take up legislation to implement the treaty at the same time it debates the treaty itself.
The GOP congressional source says the unusual procedure is required because lawmakers need more detailed information on key issues, including the exact circumstances under which plants belonging to American chemical companies could be searched by an enforcement agency created under the treaty.
"Without [the implementing legislation], you can't ask the questions that need to be raised," says the source.
Proponents of the treaty say the demand is a stalling tactic.
The administration submitted draft implementing legislation to Congress last year. It will be formally introduced soon.
US officials concede that complete verification of a chemical weapons ban would be impossible since lethal chemicals can be made in small quantities in remote locations. But they say the treaty would make it possible to conduct short-notice inspections in member states, even of suspected private facilities like those of a terrorist group operating in a country like Iran.
"We can't say we would detect every possible violation," says John Holum, director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in Washington. "But we would have a good chance of detecting a militarily significant violation that would entail producing in quantity, stockpiling, and training."
As for states that are not members, the treaty's provision barring members from trading in specified chemicals with non-members would provide a strong incentive to join, adds Holum.
Independent of the CWC, the US decided during the Bush administration to destroy its chemical weapons arsenal by 2004. The treaty would put other chemical weapons states on the same footing.
One hundred sixty states have signed the CWC and 49 had ratified it as of mid-March. The treaty will enter into force six months after being ratified by 65 nations.
The treaty debate will take place against a backdrop of growing tension between the US and Libya over Libya's construction of what Pentagon officials say is a secret underground nerve gas plant 40 miles southeast of Tripoli, the Libyan capital.
Secretary of Defense William Perry has issued veiled threats that the US might attack the chemical factory, which US intelligence officials estimate could be up and running within a year. Libya insists the facility is a project to transport water from desert aquifers to cities on the Mediterranean.
"The Tarhunah plant is immoral but not illegal," says Amy Smithson, a senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center, an arms-control think tank. "Until the CWC is in force there is no international law that prohibits developing, producing, and stockpiling chemical weapons."
Asked how the US would retaliate against a chemical weapons attack without chemical arms of its own, Secretary Perry told lawmakers at a recent Senate hearing that the US "would not specify in advance what our response to a chemical attack is, except to say that it would be devastating."
The range of possible responses, Perry said, includes the use of nuclear weapons.