Senate panel OKs sea treaty, but fight looms; votes uncertain for ratification
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 31 easily approved the Law of the Sea convention, brushing back conservatives’ objections and setting up a bruising ratification fight on the Senate floor, where Republicans say they can defeat it.
Ratification of treaties takes a two-thirds vote. Republican leaders are trying to secure 34 signatures on a letter to show they have the support to block it and hope this will persuade President Bush and Senate Democrats to put off a vote until at least next year.
“Our leadership is united. This is something we shouldn’t go forward with right now,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican. “I think we’ve got a good shot of getting 34 on it.”
The committee voted 17-4 to approve the treaty. All four votes in opposition came from Republicans: Mr. DeMint and Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Johnny Isakson of Georgia and David Vitter of Louisiana.
Mr. Bush, oil and gas companies, Senate Democrats and some key Senate Republicans support the treaty.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat and committee chairman, said it presents a clear choice: “Do we join a treaty that establishes a framework to advance the rule of law on the oceans, that is clearly in our military, economic and environmental interests, and that has broad acceptance among the major maritime powers? Or do we remain on the outside, to the detriment of our national interests?”
The treaty, negotiated in the 1970s and early 1980s, establishes rules for mining rights, navigation and territorial waters and sets up several new international bodies to oversee its implementation.
The U.S. already acts in accordance with much of the treaty, but President Reagan objected to specific provisions on seabed mining and refused to submit it for ratification. President George H.W. Bush started a new round of negotiations, and President Clinton submitted it to Congress in 1994.
The current administration says the treaty’s navigational rights will help the Navy, while the mining businesses say the treaty would provide the legal certainty they need to explore seabed resources. They argue that the treaty already has been in force for 13 years and that the U.S. is missing a chance to take part in the negotiations and decisions that are defining how it is working.
But an array of conservative national security groups is trying to block the treaty, arguing it tramples U.S. sovereignty and could create an international taxing regime. They also fear the international bodies will be hostile to the U.S. and will expand their mandate to try to control land-based businesses.
The treaty has passed the committee before, in 2004, on a 19-0 vote, though Republican leaders refused to bring it to the floor.
Now, Democratic leaders who control the schedule say they want a floor vote, but it’s not clear whether one can happen this year.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said his party is “hopeful” of holding a vote, but the schedule is crowded.
Several Republican aides said they were surprised by Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, who voted by proxy to approve the treaty. In a statement read by Sen. Richard G. Lugar, the committee’s top Republican, Mr. Corker said that his vote was only to move the process along, and that he would study the issue before a final floor vote.
Mr. Coleman voted against the treaty but said he wants to see if his questions can be answered. For now, he said he was swayed by former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, who was a vehement opponent of the treaty before she died.
Mr. DeMint said he sees opposition growing as more senators look at the treaty, and as they hear from constituents.
“We’ve gotten enough input in our office to know there’s a rising tide on this,” he said.
Speaking to reporters two weeks ago, Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican and his party’s conference chairman, said Republicans can block it on the floor.
“There aren’t the votes to pass it,” he told reporters.
At one point in the Oct. 31 committee meeting, Mr. Vitter tried to block the vote, calling for another round of hearings.
Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, told Mr. Vitter that his motion was going to fail and that by offering it he was violating the collegiality of the Senate. Several of Mr. Vitter’s Republican allies on the committee also said they would vote against his motion, and he was forced to withdraw it.
“I don’t think another hearing is going to make a difference,” Mr. Coleman told him.