The Senate on Thursday night approved a sweeping treaty to outlaw chemical weapons after intense political maneuvering and Majority Leader Trent Lott’s last-minute announcement that he supported the worldwide ban.
The 74-26 vote, after more than 12 continuous hours of debate, came just five days before the ban takes effect in dozens of countries that have already ratified the treaty. The Clinton administration, which had spent months lining up Republican luminaries to support the Chemical Weapons Convention, hailed the vote as a major triumph for foreign policy and international cooperation.
All 45 Democrats voted for the approval, as expected, while Lott’s change of heart and intense pressure from the White House helped win over more votes than the 67 needed.
The treaty bans the development, manufacture, stockpiling, sale and use of chemical weapons. Since it was negotiated in 1993 - at the urging of the United States - it has been signed by 164 nations and ratified by 74. Without Senate approval, American chemical companies would face trade sanctions and the United States would not be allowed to help draw up the rules for inspections.
The United States has already pledged to destroy its chemical weapons, but the treaty will allow an international team to conduct inspections of sites on short notice.
With Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright making appeals to the public, and senators and Vice President Al Gore prepared to press the administration’s case with swing voters, the Senate voted down a “killer” amendment that would have effectively made the treaty useless. Shortly after, Lott took to the floor as several of his colleagues watched for his long-awaited decision.
He had decided to support the treaty, he said, because military commanders “believe it will make our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines more safe in potential battlefields - and less likely to face the horrible prospect of chemical weapons.” Lott, a Mississippi Republican, said his decision came after soul-searching and prayer, and despite the fact that he found the treaty rife with flaws. Lott said he agreed with critics who say the treaty will do little to stop “rogue nations” such as Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Syria from producing and using poisonous gas and other chemical weapons.
Jesse Helms, the North Carolina conservative who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and came close to torpedoing the treaty, looked at Lott with a pained expression. Helms and other opponents of the treaty had said it would subject U.S. companies to surprise inspections and force the United States to share sensitive intelligence.
“The truth of the matter is that it won’t do a thing in the world to help the situation,” he told his colleagues after the debate started.
Noting that U.S. intelligence agencies have warned that North Korea’s Stalinist regime has stockpiled chemical weapons, Helms said the treaty will do nothing to protect the 37,000 US troops based in South Korea. “The administration either has forgotten - or deliberately ignored - the fact that North Korea has neither signed nor ratified” the agreement, he said.
But Sen. Joseph Biden, the Democrat from Delaware who spent long evenings hashing out differences with Helms and other critics, said if the treaty had been in effect during the Gulf War, it might have stopped the use of chemical weapons.
Although negotiations for a worldwide chemical weapons treaty started under President Reagan and were finished under President Bush, conservative Republicans raised so many objections to the document during last year’s election that President Clinton withdrew it before the Senate had a chance vote on it.
In its campaign for ratification, the administration rounded up prominent figures such as retired generals Colin L. Powell and Norman Schwartzkopf. In a surprise appearance, Bob Dole, Clinton’s adversary in last year’s election, appeared at the White House Wednesday to say that he had been won back to supporting the treaty after opposing it last year.
Dole said he had been swayed by 28 “clarifications” of the treaty.
After his announcement, Lott told reporters he had been persuaded by a letter he received from Clinton on Thursday morning. Clinton promised to withdraw from the pact if other countries misinterpreted its language to spread poison gas technology and imperil U.S. security.