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How a Treaty Moves Through the Senate

April 9, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

Now that President Obama and Russian President Medvedev have signed the New START treaty on reducing nuclear stockpiles, the Senate has to take it up and either ratify it or reject it. Treaties follow a different course in the Senate than legislation, and since they don’t come around that often, here’s a nice refresher provided by the White House on how it happens:

  • Under Article II of the Constitution, the President “makes” treaties, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.  Approval of a treaty requires a supermajority of two-thirds of the senators present (assuming all 100 senators are present, 67 votes are required for approval).
  • After signature of the New START Treaty on April 8, the U.S. and Russian negotiators will complete their work on several technical annexes.  Only then will the President be able to submit the treaty to the Senate (expected to be later this spring).  In addition to the text of the treaty, protocol and annexes, the President will submit to the Senate a detailed analysis of the treaty.
  • The treaty will be referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations, which under the Senate rules has exclusive jurisdiction over treaties.  If past practice on major arms control treaties is a guide, the Foreign Relations Committee will likely conduct several hearings on the New START Treaty.  The Committee held four hearings on the last such treaty, the Moscow Treaty, in 2002. 
  • Similarly, past practice suggests that other Senate committees, such as the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, may also conduct hearings and report their views to the Foreign Relations Committee, but the treaty would not be formally referred to those committees.
  • Once the Foreign Relations Committee has completed its review of the treaty, it would draft its recommendations for a resolution of advice and consent, which is the document by which the Senate approves treaties, and vote in a formal markup session.  Then it would file a detailed report with the Senate analyzing the treaty and the Committee’s findings resulting from its review.
  • Once the Committee reports the treaty to the Senate, it is placed on the Senate’s Executive Calendar.  Unlike bills, the decision of the Senate to begin consideration of a treaty (the motion to proceed) is not subject to a filibuster. The Senate typically takes at least two or three days to consider a major treaty, and to vote on amendments to the resolution of advice and consent.
  • If approved, the treaty is then returned to the President, for the formal act of ratification. Specifically, he will sign an instrument of ratification. 
  • The treaty must also be approved by the Russian parliament, or Duma.  If both the Senate and the Duma approve the New START Treaty, it will enter into force on the date that the United States and Russia exchange the instruments of ratification.

As for the votes, the Associated Press is reporting that Republicans are expected to line up behind Obama and support the treaty, citing historical bipartisanship of international security treaties.

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