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Clinton Faces Senate Setback On Chemical Weapons Treaty

By Thomas W. Lippman
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

Facing the prospect of rejection of a prized arms control agreement, the Clinton administration was forced Thursday to accept indefinite postponement of a Senate ratification vote on an ambitious global treaty to ban poison gas weapons.

The treaty, known as the Chemical Weapons Convention, will not resurface in the current Congress, Republican leaders and administration officials said. Whether it can be revived next year probably depends on the outcome of the Nov. 5 election because Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole joined the opposition ranks at the last minute.

Dole, when he was Senate majority leader, had brokered an earlier agreement aimed at facilitating ratification of the accord. But this week he endorsed the arguments of treaty critics that its ban on the manufacture or possession of poison gas weapons would not be enforceable or verifiable, and that it would subject U.S. chemical manufacturers to intrusive searches by international inspectors.

The outcome of Thursday's maneuvering represented a defeat for the administration and a repudiation of its Republican predecessor. The treaty had broad bipartisan support for more than a decade, was signed by the United States during the Bush administration's final weeks, and appeared headed for easy ratification until the past few weeks, when a relentless opposition campaign began to pick up momentum.

Administration officials said they were still confident of ratification until late Wednesday night, when Frank Gaffney - a former Pentagon hard-liner who runs a one-man think tank here called the Center for Security Policy and who has been an indefatigable critic of the treaty - began faxing out a letter from Dole urging his former Senate colleagues to vote no.

As a result, the treaty, which has been ratified by 63 countries, is likely to go into force without U.S. participation. Only two more countries among the 160 that have signed the treaty need to ratify it in order for it to take effect.

If that happens without U.S. participation, senior officials said, the United States would be precluded from planning or participating in the international inspection system, which is designed to make sure that nobody is making or selling prohibited chemicals. Moreover, the treaty provides that, without U.S. ratification, U.S. chemical manufacturers would be banned from selling in most world markets.

The Chemical Manufacturers Association, representing such industry giants as E.I. duPont de Nemours & Co., Dow Chemical Co. and Monsanto Co., lobbied hard for ratification. They argued that $60 billion a year in export sales could be jeopardized if the United States does not participate in the treaty. The big chemical companies said they were prepared to accept the mandatory challenge inspections called for in the treaty, but treaty opponents said the inspections would impose an unfair and perhaps unconstitutional burden on small manufacturers of legitimate compounds.

Dole, in his letter, said the Senate should insist the treaty "recognize and safeguard American constitutional protections against unwarranted searches."

"The bottom line is Senator Dole has failed to rally his Republican troops in support of this important tool in the fight against terrorism and the scourge of chemical weapons," said Clinton campaign spokesman James P. Rubin.

Clinton had strongly endorsed the treaty. But the administration did little to push it through to ratification during its first two years, when Democrats controlled the Senate, leaving its fate up to the Republicans after the GOP won control of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections.

Many GOP senators support the accord, as do Bush administration officials who participated in negotiating it such as former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former White House national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.

But hawks such as Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.; John Kyl, R-Ariz.; and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, R-N.C., waged a vigorous last-ditch fight against ratification. Gaffney rounded up plenty of GOP moral support for them, circulating in addition to the Dole letter a letter of opposition from former defense secretaries Richard Cheney and Caspar W. Weinberger, and other former top officials in the Reagan and Bush administrations.

By Thursday morning, Lott, Kyl and their allies appeared to be within reach of the 34 votes needed to block approval; a two-thirds Senate majority is needed to ratify treaties.