Behind the Nuclear Test Ban Tussle

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With India and Pakistan testing nukes and China stealing secrets, should the U.S. tie its own hands on nuclear weapons? That was exactly how Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was hoping the question would be posed when he rushed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to a vote in the Senate last week. And with both sides conceding the treaty lacked the votes to pass, senators were negotiating Wednesday to reschedule next Tuesday's vote. "The White House was confident that given a normal legislative process with weeks of hearings and plenty of advance warning, it could muster the votes to win this one," says TIME White House correspondent Jay Branegan. "On the other hand, Senator Lott knew he could hold the line against the treaty if he caught the White House off guard with a quick vote." Although the two sides may agree to postpone the battle, Republicans want it to wait until after the 2000 elections, while the White House wants a vote before President Clinton leaves office.

Objections to the treaty may be based more on the uncertainty of a post-Cold War world than on strategic considerations. "The U.S. really doesn't need to test nuclear weapons any longer because we have more than enough bombs to destroy all life on the planet," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. "Maintaining the readiness of that strategic arsenal is already being done via computer testing; the U.S. hasn't conducted an underground test in seven years." The treaty, which would only come into effect once all nuclear-capable states have ratified it, is, however, considered an important brake on the ability of China and other more recent nuclear states to modernize their arsenals. And that raises the stakes in the Senate impasse: "If this treaty fails it would damage U.S. leadership and our non-proliferation agenda," National Security Council spokesman David Leavy told TIME Daily. "It would mean that there's no universal diplomatic deterrent on future testing enshrined in law." At least the senators aren't alone in their reluctance to ratify the treaty: Russia's communist-dominated Duma is right up their with them, as are Iran, North Korea and China.