White House suggests Obama will put off signing arms treaty until August

The White House signaled Monday that President Obama will delay signing a controversial arms trade treaty until after Congress leaves for summer recess.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president aims to sign the pact “before the end of August.” Obama could have signed it as early as Monday.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) opposes the treaty, and the delay would allow Obama to sign the pact during the August doldrums, with Congress out of town.

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That time frame appears to validate the concerns of treaty advocates who had worried the administration would wait until the cover of darkness to sign a treaty opposed by a majority of senators.

“I think there’s a lot of political hand-wringing going on,” said Rachel Stohl, a senior associate with the Stimson Center think tank, which supports the treaty. “They know people are going to be paying attention to this particular issue on this particular day.”

The treaty covers small arms and calls on states to keep records on "end users, as appropriate." 

Critics of the treaty say that would lead to the creation of an end-user registry for exports, fueling the oppositon of the NRA and a majority of the Senate. The administation and treaty advocates however say there would be no such registry.

The decision is a curious one because the administration supported the pact when it was considered at the United Nations. It contrasts with the more muscular stance Obama took during this year’s gun control debate, when the president surrounded himself with victims of gun violence to press the Senate into action.

Observers on Monday suggested the administration is keen to avoid needlessly antagonizing lawmakers it needs to win over on immigration reform by starting a fight over the gun treaty.

Carney made it clear Monday that Obama intends to sign it eventually, arguing that technical reasons explain the delay.

“We believe it’s in the interest of the United States,” he said. “While we look forward to signing the treaty, there are remaining translation issues that need to be resolved.”

The treaty has little chance of being ratified anytime soon, with the Senate voting 53-46 in March on an amendment declaring its opposition to ratification. The administration says Senate ratification isn’t vital to the treaty’s aims because the United States is already in compliance with its demands to create a mechanism for ensuring its arms sales aren’t likely to be used to target civilians.

Treaty advocates blamed the delay on both political advisers in the White House and technical experts at the State Department who don’t want to be blamed down the line if they sign off on a treaty before all the details are ironed out. The advocates argue the treaty was originally written in English and that the administration could make it clear in a signing statement what it was agreeing to before all the translations are finalized.

For his part, Secretary of State John Kerry has made clear his interest in having the president sign on as soon as possible. In April, Kerry directed the U.S. mission to the U.N. to take a lead role in quickly getting the treaty before the U.N. General Assembly after Iran, Syria and North Korea blocked it from reaching consensus in conference.

“The United States welcomes the opening of the Arms Trade Treaty for signature and we look forward to signing it as soon as the process of conforming the official translations is completed satisfactorily,” Kerry said in a statement Monday.

Advocates say Obama has wasted an opportunity to make a bold statement in favor of the treaty by immediately signing it. This would have put more pressure on other major arms dealers such as Russia and China to get on board, they said.

A number of U.S. allies, including Great Britain, France and Australia, immediately signed on Monday.

“Proud that Australia is the first country to sign the Arms Trade Treaty to crack down on illegal weapons,” Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr tweeted.

— Updated at 10:02 a.m. on Tuesday.