This was a vote on an amendment that would have explicitly limited the capacity of Russia and the U.S. to maintain rail mobile launchers (which enable nuclear weapons to be launched from trains). This amendment was offered to a nuclear weapons reduction treaty (known as the “New START” treaty). This amendment would have had the effect of killing the treaty for the foreseeable future; any tampering with the treaty’s language would have torpedoed the agreement entirely.
Ensign’s amendment would have explicitly included rail mobile launchers in the treaty’s limit on nuclear delivery systems (or “launchers”). A “nuclear delivery system” simply refers to the technology that launches a nuclear weapon in a manner that will enable it to detonate on or near its target. The treaty limited the number of launchers Russia and the U.S. could maintain to 700. Under Ensign’s amendment, rail mobile launchers would be counted in that total limit of 700.
Ensign urged support for his amendment: “According to Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Duma [Russian parliament] International Affairs Committee…the Russians' understanding, is that rail mobile is not included in this treaty…. we can infer that it is absolutely Russia's position that rail mobile ICBMs are not captured by this treaty or subject to the treaty's limitations. So this is an issue we must address and we must clarify.”
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) urged opposition to the amendment, arguing it sought to remedy a problem that did not exist – and, more importantly, would have effectively killed the entire treaty since the Russians were not willing to renegotiate the agreement: “I would emphasize it is important to note that neither side currently deploys rail mobile systems….They are all gone. Destroyed. The New START treaty is specifically drafted so that if Russia were to revive its rail mobile program, it would count under New START's…limits….I submit that the amendment is unneeded. But more seriously, if in fact it were to be adopted, it would require renegotiation of the treaty. For that reason, as well as others I have stated as succinctly as possible, I oppose the amendment.
A fact sheet on this the New START treaty published by the State Department noted: “There is no specific mention of rail-mobile launchers…in the New START Treaty because neither Party currently deploys ICBMs [long-range missiles] in that mode….Nevertheless, the New START Treaty’s terms and definitions cover all ICBMs and ICBM launchers, including a rail-mobile system should either party decide to develop and deploy such a system.”
The Senate rejected the Ensign amendment by a vote of 32-63. Voting “yea” were 32 Republicans. All 56 Democrats present and 7 Republicans voted “nay.” As a result, the Senate rejected an amendment – to a nuclear weapons reduction treaty – that would have explicitly limited the capacity of Russia and the U.S. to maintain rail mobile launchers.