Conflict between the Clinton administration and congressional Republicans over foreign policy reaches a crucial point this week as the Senate attempts to vote on a treaty to ban chemical weapons.
The Chemical Weapons Convention has been checked by two recurring forces in American politics: a historical debate over the nation's proper role in the world and the Senate's constitutional role in American diplomacy.
Senate leaders are likely to allow a vote on the pact only if the president shows flexibility on a series of other international issues. Top GOP lawmakers, for one, want some independent US foreign affairs agencies disbanded. They're also negotiating with the White House over their efforts to make the United Nations tighten up its internal management.
Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi "is thinking in terms of a multi-item package here and so is the White House," says Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, a treaty supporter and No. 2 Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Throughout this century, "isolationists" and "internationalists" have argued over what America's position in the world should be. Modern-day conservative isolationists (though they might quibble with that label) are deeply suspicious of international organizations and agreements. They staunchly defend national sovereignty, take a hard line against communist countries, and generally oppose US involvement in peacekeeping operations such as those in Haiti and Bosnia. Their champion is Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, who has used his position to block action on the chemical-weapons treaty.
Today's internationalists, led by President Clinton and including most of the foreign-policy establishment in both parties, view the world as a jungle to be brought under control by international organizations, arms-control treaties, peacekeeping operations, and international cooperation.
The treaty would ban the manufacture of chemical weapons and allow for international economic sanctions on countries that do not do so. The result of years of difficult multilateral negotiations, the treaty as it stands is largely the product of the Reagan and Bush administrations.
"The CWC sets that standard that it is wrong for any nation to build or possess a chemical weapon and gives us strong and effective tools for enforcing that standard," says Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The US must ratify it by April 29 if American representatives are to be included in its implementation. It's unclear if the US would ever ratify the pact if the Senate misses the coming deadline.
Opponents, however, argue that the treaty is unverifiable and will actually help spread chemical-weapons technology. They also say that "rogue" nations such as Iran, Iraq, and Libya will either refuse to sign or else sign and hide their weapons programs.
"There are some that will oppose international agreements of any kind under any circumstances, and this is probably one of the most stark examples of that unwillingness," says Sen. Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota, Senate minority leader.
The other holdup has been the Senate leadership's assertion of its constitutional role in foreign policy, a role that has bedeviled administrations since George Washington's. Senator Lott has used the delay on the chemical-arms treaty to elicit White House cooperation on other issues important to Hill Republicans. They want to shut down one or more foreign-affairs agencies (the Agency for International Development, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the US Information Agency) and fold those activities into the State Department. They want to cut spending at the UN and reduce US dues. And they want the administration to resubmit three other arms-control treaties to the Senate for review now that the pacts have been modified in negotiations with Russia.
Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the Foreign Relations Committee's ranking Democrat, has negotiated with Senator Helms over the chemical-weapons treaty on behalf of the administration. The two now agree on 21 of about 30 objections that Helms and others have raised.
Senator Lott, meanwhile, has led direct talks with presidential advisers on the other issues. He says progress has been made on the State Department (although he wants more specifics) and on UN dues and the US debt to the world body. Moreover, the administration has agreed to resend two of the three arms-control pacts to the Senate.
"I think that is an important development. I think it is a concession on the part of the administration, and that I view as a step in the right direction," Lott says.
The key questions now: Will Helms allow the treaty out of committee for the full Senate to vote on? If not, will Lott force a vote anyway, and what will be his position on the treaty? Finally, can supporters muster the 67 Senate votes needed for ratification?
Several senators say they believe the treaty will come to the floor not linked to the other issues. The Senate first will consider a bill by Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona and the GOP leadership that would substitute ratification with a unilateral ban on the manufacture or distribution of chemical weapons by US companies. But if they can defeat that measure and get an up-or-down vote on the treaty itself, treaty supporters are "cautiously optimistic" they will carry the day.