Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry announced at a hearing Tuesday he will bring up the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea treaty this year. Both of Alaska’s Senators strongly support treaty ratification But Kerry will wait until after the November election to bring it to a vote.
Top Obama administration officials have been urging the Senate to take up the 30-year-old treaty for weeks and the Senate has now officially begun what will be a long process.
The first of several committee hearings on the treaty featured the nation’s top security brass, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey.
The treaty – which more than 160 countries have ratified – regulates shipping routes and deep-sea mining. It enjoys broad support, from business groups like the Chamber of Commerce to environmental ones, like the Natural Resources Defense Council.
And because of that swath of support, Secretary Clinton took the unusual step of using her opening remarks to needle opponents of the pact who say it infringes on U.S. sovereignty.
“Well the fact that a treaty was negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations, which is after all a convenient gathering place for the countries of the world, has not stopped us from joining treaties which are in our interests. We are party to dozens of agreements negotiated under the U.N. auspices,” Clinton said.
Secretary Clinton says those focus on commerce, telecommunications and defense.
That last reason is why Secretary Panetta is making the pitch. He says the treaty expands the sovereignty of the United States – in such a size and way not seen since the country grew to include the West and Alaska.
Secretary Panetta says that as the U.S. Navy is facing a myriad of ongoing issues, from turmoil in the South China Sea, to an increased global presence in the Arctic, it will need to form partnerships with other countries to ease the burden, and that’s where the treaty comes in.
“If 160 nations have acceded to it, and we say to hell with them, we’re not going to participate in that, then 160 nations are going to determine what happens with the Law of the Sea. And we won’t be there,” Panetta said.
Only the Senate can ratify a treaty and, right now, there are at least a couple dozen skeptical Republican senators. Senator Kerry, a vocal supporter, says moving the vote on the treaty until after the election will remove a substantive global pact away from the toxic political climate.
But if the hearing is an indication, maybe it won’t. Idaho Senator Jim Risch read a segment of the treaty that he interprets as global environmental standards, something he’d like to work around.
“After this is adopted by the Senate, if it is, how are we going to get around the fact that we agreed that we will adopt these new laws and regulations?,” Risch said.
Ideological disagreements on regulation will not be resolved by Nov. 6.
But moving the vote provides more working room. Kerry says he’ll hold hearings with industries that support the pact, and top military personnel. That could pit Republican hold-outs groups they typically get along quite well with.
And moving the vote past the election gives two key senators a little more time to sway the skeptics – Republicans Dick Lugar and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. Those two supporters will have to convince a fair number of their own party to hop on because the treaty needs 67 votes to pass.
And even if they think they can get the votes – they’ll need to make the argument that the treaty is worth time in a lame-duck session that’s guaranteed to be packed from beginning to end.