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Senate OK of Chemical Weapons Pact Not Assured

Congress: U.S. has been leading force behind treaty. But conservative lobbying could leave White House short of 67 votes needed.

September 12, 1996|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Clinton administration is running into unexpected trouble in its bid to win Senate ratification of a chemical weapons convention treaty, which calls for the destruction of chemical arms stockpiles and factories around the world within 10 years.

After eleventh-hour lobbying by conservatives, about 25 senators are said to oppose the treaty, with enough others leaning against it to leave the White House short of the 67 votes needed for ratification. The Senate is scheduled to take up the measure today, although it may not vote until early next week.

Senate approval once was regarded as a near certainty, and rejection of the treaty would be a setback for President Clinton.

The United States has been the leading force behind the pact, signed by 160 countries, including Russia and China. Negotiations were completed by President Bush in 1992, before Clinton took office.

White House officials said Clinton and Vice President Al Gore have begun telephoning senators to try to rescue the treaty.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher issued a statement Wednesday urging prompt Senate ratification. He said the pact is "of critical importance" to American security.

Ratification would oblige the United States and other signatories to eliminate their chemical weapons within 10 years and shut facilities that could be used to develop or manufacture them. The prohibition would be enforced by a new United Nations agency empowered to inspect suspect sites and factories at will--even firms that are only peripherally involved in chemicals production--and impose penalties on violators.

But opponents argued that the treaty is likely to be ineffective because countries whose programs pose some of the biggest threats to U.S. interests--North Korea, Libya, Syria and Iraq--have not signed the accord. They also assert that, even if a country signed the treaty, it would be almost impossible to verify its compliance because many of the most lethal chemical weapons could be manufactured in a garage or makeshift laboratory, sites unlikely to be detected by U.N. inspectors.

Opponents include Republican and Democratic conservatives and hard-line activists, including former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who helped negotiate the treaty during the Bush administration.

At the same time, a group of other former Bush administration policymakers, including Brent Scowcroft, former White House national security advisor, is pushing for ratification. Although the pact has flaws, they argue, it still is worth supporting.

Scowcroft argued in a letter that, while the treaty would not end the threat of chemical warfare or terrorism, "it will constrain the proliferation of chemical weapons both by explicitly outlawing their acquisition and by regulating international trade." He also contended that refusal to ratify the treaty would not help the United States. If anything, he said, rejecting it would leave the United States without a voice in how to administer the new treaty.

Senate Republicans have said they plan to propose at least two amendments to the ratification resolution, but they have not said what would be in them. Under Senate procedures, they may not alter the substance of the accord.

The pact is to take effect within six months after ratification by 65 of the 160 countries that have signed it. As of this week, about 60 countries have formally accepted it.

The treaty has been endorsed by the Pentagon and Joint Chiefs of Staff and by the Chemical Manufacturers Assn., the U.S. trade group representing corporations that make most of the chemicals used in such weapons programs.

The administration had hoped to win Senate approval of the treaty last year, but the measure was held up by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and later was delayed by other GOP leaders.

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