Senate Republicans split over Law of the Sea Treaty

A United Nations treaty that Ronald Reagan rejected is rearing its head again in Washington. The big surprise this time around? A few key Republicans are throwing their weight behind it and others seem willing to budge.

Administration heavy hitters Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday to support the Law of the Sea Treaty, a world agreement governing transit over the oceans as well as use of resources in the deep sea beds and continental shelf. Over 160 nations have signed on to the treaty, but Ronald Reagan set the trend of objecting in 1984, citing restrictions on mining of the deep sea beds.

While those provisions were favorably amended in 1994, several provisions that remain are just as worrisome to conservatives. A remaining provision would collect a royalty on oil and gas production and other activities taking place on our own continental shelf, redistributing the funds with a preference for underdeveloped and landlocked countries. Critics also say the treaty would open the U.S. up to international lawsuits and potentially force the U.S. to comply with carbon emissions regulations like those the nation already rejected in the Kyoto Protocol.

But it appears that arguments from political and military leaders that the treaty would strengthen maritime defense and boost U.S. economic interests by giving us “a seat at the table” are gaining traction with center-aisle Republicans.

Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) helped to open Wednesday’s hearing with a statement emphatically supporting the treaty.

“Every year that goes by without the U.S. joining the convention results in deepening our country’s submission to ocean laws and practices determined by foreign government without U.S. input,” Lugar said. “Our Navy and our ocean industries operate every day in a maritime environment that is increasingly dominated by foreign decision-making. In almost any other context, the Senate would be outraged at subjecting Americans to foreign controls without U.S. input.”

A few other Republicans on the committee seemed tractable, though they still raised serious reservations.

“A lot of people believe that the administration wants to use this treaty as a way to get America into a regime relating to carbon since it’s been unsuccessful in doing so domestically,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said, clarifying that he wanted to hear all testimony before making a decision.

Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) took harder lines opposing the treaty, with Inhofe calculating the royalties collected by the international authority the treaty set up would amount to billions of dollars per year, and DeMint objecting to the agreement that it would give nations hostile to our interests veto and decision-making authority over us.

“When we enter into an agreement with other nations that don’t play by the rules, we put ourselves at a disadvantage,” DeMint said.

The conservative Heritage Foundation and Center for Security Policy have both taken vocal stances in opposition to the treaty, as has senior Republican Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.)

But the list of those who are prepared to sign on to the treaty includes Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sens. Olympia Snow (R-Maine). Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin also voiced strong support for the treaty in 2007.

In coming weeks, Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said, panels representing business interests, all military service chiefs, and organizations opposed to the treaty would all have opportunities to address the committee. Though the administration is likely to continue its hard push for passage of the treaty, it will still be a tough sell in the Senate, even if taken up during the November lame duck session. The Constitution requires a two-thirds majority for accession to treaties, which means that 14 Republicans would have to join all Senate Democrats and Independents in voting “aye.”