The spirit of cooperation promised by President Clinton and the Republican-led Congress will get its first major test when lawmakers consider the ratification of a global ban on chemical weapons.
The Clinton administration says it will seek Senate approval of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) - which would require nations to eliminate their chemical weapons stocks or face targeted international sanctions - as soon as the 105th Congress opens in January. But GOP foes led by Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are already maneuvering to block a vote.
"It's highly unlikely that Helms will let that treaty out of committee any time soon," says a Republican foreign policy aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Unless the CWC wins two-thirds of the Senate's support before April 29, the treaty will take effect without the United States, which combined with Russia possesses the world's largest chemical-weapons stocks. Should that happen, Clinton officials say US-led efforts to control the global spread of weapons of mass destruction could be compromised. US chemicalmakers could also lose a "substantial portion" of some $60 billion in annual exports.
Critics say the CWC is seriously flawed; that it is impossible to enforce, wouldn't prevent terrorist groups or "rogue" countries such as Iraq and Libya from obtaining the ingredients for chemical weapons, and would subject thousands of small American companies to costly regulations and intrusive inspections.
More could be at stake than US membership in the CWC. The looming showdown could quickly determine the overall tone of foreign policy deliberations between the administration and Mr. Helms, one of the most powerful committee chairmen on Capitol Hill. Relations between them in the last congressional session were beset by discord and acrimony, with Helms using his position to stall votes on legislation and dozens of presidential appointments in order to advance his own agenda, which includes a major consolidation of the foreign policy establishment.
The administration often turned to former Senate majority leader Bob Dole to mediate with Helms. But with Mr. Dole replaced by the more conservative Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, the administration may find it even more difficult working with Helms.
After months of delay, Helms agreed to release the CWC for a Senate vote this past September. But in a surprise move, Dole launched a last-minute lobbying campaign against ratification to deprive Mr. Clinton of a victory that could bolster his reelection campaign. Rather than have the treaty defeated, Clinton withdrew it from consideration.
Since then, Hungary has become the 65th country to ratify the CWC, which goes into effect 180 days after the 65th ratification.
John Holum, head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, says he anticipates continued opposition to CWC ratification by the Senate given its postelection conservative swing. But Mr. Holum says he believes a majority of members will realize the serious damage the US could be dealt by not ratifying the treaty before it goes into effect.
"Arms control and nonproliferation are genuinely nonpartisan causes," says Holum. "Now that we have the clock ticking and everybody will recognize that this is something that needs to be done in the national interest, we have moved out of the political context."
Should the US fail to become an "original party" to the CWC, it would be excluded from helping to shape and run the new UN organization that will implement the international ban on the manufacture, use, and stockpiling of chemical weapons. It would also be prevented from monitoring and inspecting suspected violators.
Jobs at stake
The US chemical industry, which has been lobbying hard for the CWC, could also be seriously hurt. Under the treaty, chemical manufacturers in nonmember states will be banned from doing business with companies in states that belong to the CWC.
But opponents contend that only the largest US chemical firms support the treaty. They have the capacity to absorb the huge costs of compliance, while smaller companies that use chemicals the CWC will control will be unable to afford those costs, they say.
"What this treaty does is endanger the livelihoods of thousands of Americans working in hundreds of different industries that use these chemicals," says Mark Thiessen, a spokesman for Helms.
Critics also charge that the intrusive inspections by international monitors permitted by the CWC will put American manufacturing secrets at risk. Nor will the treaty enhance US security, they argue, because countries considered the greatest threats, such as Libya, will not be parties to it.
Even though the CWC has already undergone 13 hearings, Mr. Thiessen says the election of the new Senate will require it to undergo a new examination, raising serious doubts that it will see a vote by the full chamber on the accelerated basis sought by the Clinton administration.