Former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, who almost singlehandedly blocked ratification last fall of a treaty banning poison-gas weapons, reversed course Wednesday and urged the Senate to approve the pact, probably assuring its approval in a vote scheduled for late today.
Dole’s endorsement gives political cover to Republican senators who may have doubts about some aspects of the treaty but are reluctant to bear the historic weight of keeping the United States out of a convention designed to rid the world of chemical arms, the feared scourge of World War I battlefields that have become a favorite weapon of terrorists and rogue states.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., hinted strongly Wednesday that he will join Dole, his predecessor in the leadership position, in supporting the pact. Observers agreed that it is likely several undecided senators will follow Lott’s lead, meaning that he could tip the balance of votes in either direction.
Although Lott, clearly relishing his pivotal role, told reporters that his decision was “unannounced, for sure,” said the Clinton administration has accepted interpretations that make the measure “clearly better than it was.”
Lott said “a good dozen” Republican senators remained undecided as debate on the measure began Wednesday. But he predicted that at least some of those lawmakers will be influenced by Dole’s endorsement.
“Sen. Dole obviously has a great deal of respect in the Senate,” he said.
The treaty, originally advocated by former President Reagan and signed by former President Bush, has become a key test of President Clinton’s foreign policy leadership.
All 45 Democrats in the Senate have announced they will support the treaty. Republican sentiment is closely divided but with Dole’s support, backers of the treaty say they are hopeful of getting the 22 Republican votes needed to reach the 67 votes - two-thirds of the Senate - required to ratify the treaty.
Dole announced his support at a White House rally also attended by retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and other supporters, including some World War I veterans with firsthand recollection of gas warfare.
Last September, the administration withdrew the treaty from the Senate after Dole suggested the pact was unverifiable and was unlikely to rein in the chemical weapons programs of rogue governments like Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and North Korea. In the face of Dole’s opposition, Senate rejection of the treaty was almost certain, officials said.
But at the White House Wednesday, Dole said the administration’s acceptance of 28 of 33 Republican reservations and interpretations has removed most of his objections to the pact.
“Is it perfect?” he said. “No. But I believe there are now adequate safeguards to protect American interests.”
Despite Dole’s statement, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and the treaty’s most implacable opponent, complained that Dole’s concerns have not been addressed.