Republicans bristle at vote on sea treaty during lame duck

Senate Republicans reacted with outrage Wednesday at news that Democrats will wait until after the presidential election to bring the controversial Law of the Sea Treaty to a vote.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) announced the decision during a high-level hearing with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey. Clinton on Wednesday urged the Senate to pass the treaty “this year,” suggesting the Democratic-led Senate could do so right after the presidential election — regardless of who wins.

ADVERTISEMENT
“I think it's a bad idea,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). “I don't like to do something in the lame-duck session, particularly something that is as dangerous to our sovereignty as this is.” 

Inhofe said he expects Republicans to gain seats in the elections, which would allow defeated Democrats to vote for the treaty. That possibility is especially controversial because it comes on the heels of the Senate's passage of the new START nuclear disarmament treaty with Russia in December 2010.

“Ramming the START treaty through the lame-duck session with votes from politicians who had just lost at the ballot box was a shameful exercise,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), “and it would be wrong to repeat that mistake" with the Law of the Sea Treaty.

Proponents of the treaty — including the U.S. Navy, oil-and-gas companies and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — refute the notion that the United States would lose any rights by joining the more than 160 countries that have acceded the treaty over the past three decades. They say the United States is already bound by many of its decisions without having a seat at the table.

Kerry said some lawmakers “on and off the committee” have candidly told him they'd “be more comfortable” if they could avoid having to cast the controversial vote during the campaign season. 

“I would like to see this treaty stay out of the hurly-burly of presidential politics,” Kerry said. “So heeding that advice, and preferring that we encourage the kind of evaluative and educational process, which does justice to this committee and justice to the United States Senate ratification process, I announce today that I do not currently intend to bring the treaty to a vote before the November election.”

That rationale didn't convince Republicans who are on the fence.

“It's a big policy change,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “I'm not so sure it fits into [the lame-duck framework], but time will tell.”

Others are convinced the treaty needs to pass this year after stalling in the Senate for years.

“I have expressed concerns,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). “We have so many other issues — we haven't had the one-year review of the START treaty, we have issues going on in Iran, we have issues in Libya, in Syria. ... My antenna's up just because I'm not really sure why this, why now.”

Corker is in line to become the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee following the defeat in the Indiana primary earlier this month of Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), a champion of both the START and the LOST treaties. Lugar's defeat is a sharp reminder that even lame-duck votes can come back to haunt lawmakers in subsequent election cycles.

The Obama administration, however, argues that signing the treaty is more important than ever.

“One could argue, that 20 years ago, 10 years ago, maybe even five years ago, joining the convention was important but not urgent,” Clinton testified Wednesday. “That is no longer the case today.”

She noted four new developments that make U.S. participation “a matter of utmost security and economic urgency”:

• U.S. oil-and-gas companies are now capable of drilling for energy on the extended continental shelf past 200 nautical miles, but aren't willing to do so without the legal certainty embodied in the treaty; 

• the treaty gives mining companies a secure title to deep seabed mining, which is also taking off thanks to technological advances;

• global climate change is opening up the Arctic to new opportunities such as fishing, drilling and shipping that Russia and other Arctic states are taking advantage of through the treaty; and 

• the treaty body addressing deep seabed mining is now drawing up the rules to govern the extraction of rare-earth minerals that are vital to the cell phone and computer industries, without formal input from the United States.

Critics say the treaty would force oil-and-gas companies to pay royalties to a treaty body and pave the way to regulation of greenhouse gases that pollute the ocean. Proponents say energy companies would rather pay royalties if it means they can drill and refute the argument that the United States would be bound by greenhouse gas restrictions.

To date, 26 Senate Republicans have signed onto a letter opposing the treaty — just eight shy of the 34 they need to block treaty passage in the Senate, which requires a two-thirds majority. Inhofe said he expects more lawmakers to oppose the treaty but have so far declined to sign their names, but others think the treaty has the votes to pass this year after failing in 2007.

“I think there’s two-thirds vote for it,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “All of our military leaders are for it. It ought to pass, it should have passed years ago. It puts us at a big disadvantage not to be at that table when the discussions on implementation of that treaty take place.”

— Jeremy Herb contributed.