A key Republican senator who helped vote down US ratification of a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (NTBT) 10 years ago, said he would now consider supporting it.
Senator John McCain, the last Republican presidential nominee, said he still had concerns, but could support the treaty if they are addressed before another vote.
In a separate interview, another important Republican who voted against the treaty in 1999, Senator Richard Lugar, said he has not yet made up his mind.
US President Barack Obama has said that ratifying the treaty was a priority as he tries to reverse the spread of nuclear weapons and reduce the threat that they will be used.
The two Republicans could prove pivotal for Senate ratification.
Even if all Democrats and their allies back the treaty, Obama would need the support of at least seven Republicans.
Lugar and McCain are two of the top Republicans on national security and would likely have sway over their colleagues. Lugar is the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee; McCain, Obama’s former presidential opponent, is the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
McCain has embraced Obama’s goal of eliminating all the world’s nuclear weapons and said that a global test ban would be a step forward if it were implemented prudently.
“The devil is in the details,” he said. “If we could get it done, if it is acceptable, then it is a step forward on the path to the president’s goal and mine of a nuclear free world.” Lugar, who is regarded as one of Washington’s leading actors on arms control issues, said that he favored delaying consideration of a treaty at least until after an international conference in May on strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. He said he would consider the test ban treaty when it was brought up.
Lugar is currently pressing for the administration to conclude talks with Russia on a follow-on agreement to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires in December. The Republican senator said he is marshaling party votes to ratify that treaty, which would limit US and Russian nuclear arsenals.
He said he does not want an acrimonious debate about a test ban treaty to sap support for START or weaken the US position at the May conference.
“I would postpone consideration,” he said about the test ban treaty.
Some analysts, who follow the issue, say that other Republicans will be watching Lugar and particularly McCain.
“John McCain is one of the only Republican senators who is independent-minded enough to break out of the partisan dividing lines on this issue,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “He has the gravitas to influence others in the caucus.”
When the treaty was submitted for consideration in 1999, both Lugar and McCain expressed concerns about how little time was allowed for debate of a complex issue. They and other opponents also doubted whether the treaty’s monitoring system could detect small underground nuclear test and worried that the soundness of the US
nuclear arsenal would come under question if tests could not be conducted.
Ultimately, the Republican-controlled Senate rejected the pact almost entirely along party lines with a 48-in-favor, 51-against vote.
Negotiated in the 1990s, the treaty specified 44 nuclear-capable states — from Algeria to Vietnam — that must give full formal approval before it can take effect, putting the power of international law and the UN Security Council behind the ban. All but nine of those have ratified, along with the governing bodies of 113 other countries.