WASHINGTON: At 10 o’clock today, the Administration’s push to pass the Law of the Sea treaty will come before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If history is any guide, that’s as far as it will ever get.
Committee chairman Sen. John Kerry declined to give odds on ratification, saying that would be “premature”: “I just want to let the hearings happen and let Senators grill both sides and come to their own conclusions,” he said in a written statement to Breaking Defense. But those who watch the Senate closely say the odds are bad.
It’s not that the Administration isn’t trying. It is sending three of its heaviest hitters to Capitol Hill this morning: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey. (Panetta and Dempsey already made a rare joint appearance to push for the treaty just two weeks ago.) But the last time the long-stalled Law of the Sea treaty came up, in 2007, it didn’t even get a vote in the full Senate, and that was in a less polarized Senate and with the backing of a Republican President. Obama isn’t likely to get traction with Republicans where George W. Bush could not.
Even the Senate Foreign Relations Committee itself will be less receptive: Back in 2007 it voted for ratification by a lopsided 17 to 4, but since then, three of the six Republicans who voted “yes” have left the Senate (namely Chuck Hagel, John Sununu, and George Voinovich), while all four “nays” are still around. Assuming the committee does manage a majority for the treaty, which is still the likeliest outcome, supporters then have to muster a 2/3 majority in the full Senate, the Constitution’s special hurdle for approving treaties. The necessary 67 votes would take all 51 Democrats, both Democratic-leaning independents, and 14 Republicans. There are a few Republicans left who support Law of the Sea, notably Lisa Murkowski, who as an Alaskan is deeply concerned about international consensus in Arctic waters; the equally maritime-minded Olympia Snowe of Maine; and Dick Lugar, the ranking member on Foreign Relations and now a lame duck. Lugar will be around for this vote, but many other internationalist Republicans are gone. As the Senate has become more polarized, the 14 Republicans rated least conservative on foreign policy by my former colleagues at National Journal – the ones in theory most likely to vote for ratification – include not only treaty supporters like Murkowski, Snowe, and Lugar but also avowed opponents like Georgia’s Johnny Isakson, who voted against the treaty back in 2007.
Kerry still wants to make the case. “One of my conservative friends told me it’s the best Republican treaty you’ve never heard of,” he said in his statement to Breaking Defense. “I just want to chair the hearings so people can hear the whole story. I didn’t agree with George Bush on many things, but I supported this Treaty when he pushed it in 2007. It’s not just Bush 43 who supports it, it’s the biggest oil, gas, cable, and mining corporations in the country plus the Chamber of Commerce and the military. This is something that President Nixon wanted, that President Reagan strengthened” – though we should note here that Reagan rejected the treaty in its original form in 1982 – “and given such powerful support in the conservative business world and Republican national security mainstream, I just want to let the hearings happen and let Senators grill both sides and come to their own conclusions.”