By RAJU CHEBIUM
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina is leading an effort to block the Senate from considering an ocean treaty backed by military officials, business lobbying groups, environmental organizations and the Obama administration.
Supporters say the Law of the Sea treaty, which has languished in the Senate for years, would advance U.S. economic and national security interests on the high seas. The treaty, signed by 161 countries, serves a rulebook for nations seeking to drill for oil, natural gas and minerals in the open seas.
DeMint and his allies say the treaty would infringe on American sovereignty.
Sixty-seven senators, or two-thirds of the chamber, must approve the treaty before President Barack Obama can sign it. Opponents need 34 votes to derail it.
Thirty senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have signed onto a letter circulated by Demint that denounces the pact.
"We believe this (treaty) reflects political, economic, and ideological assumptions which are inconsistent with American values and sovereignty," the letter says. "We are particularly concerned that United States sovereignty could be subjugated in many areas to a supranational government that is chartered by the United Nations."
DeMint is trying to get more senators to sign the letter, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who said through a spokesman that he's studying the matter.
Graham and DeMint have disagreed on recent issues important to South Carolina, such as reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank of the United States and securing federal funds for a dredging study at the Port of Charleston. Graham has sided with the state's business community while DeMint has espoused conservative positions popular among tea party activists.
Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is pushing for a vote on the treaty after the November elections.
Republican business leaders and the Navy are asking the Senate to pass it, Kerry said in a statement.
"These are the biggest oil and gas and mining and cable companies in the world who are losing out to China and Russia because the United States is on the outside of this treaty," he said. "People who always promise to listen to the military need to listen to the military on this treaty."
Treaty supporters such as Canadian maritime lawyer Wylie Spicer say the pact specifies that coastal nations have exclusive rights to drill and fish within their territorial waters - which extend 12 miles out to sea - and to regulate fishing, mining and drilling by other countries inside a 200-mile economic zone.
The pact created an international council of 36 nations - the U.S. would be the only permanent member if it adopts the treaty - to regulate sea-bed drilling and mining deep in international waters.
Under one contentious provision, companies must pay royalties totaling up to 7 percent of the value of the resources they extract in the deep sea. Conservatives call this a "redistribution of wealth," but Spicer said all the provision would do is slightly raise the cost of business for companies.
The treaty also recognizes military navigation rights, allows companies to install and maintain undersea cables without interference from foreign governments and sets up dispute-resolution procedures for treaty-signing nations.
By not adopting the treaty, the U.S. is depriving itself of the chance to set ocean policy, Spicer said.
"We have to figure out a way to regulate activities in the ocean," he said. "The United States has one of the biggest coastlines in the world. You'd think they'd want to be part of the international consensus of how the ocean should be governed."
In a recent op-ed in The Hill newspaper, DeMint said the U.S. doesn't need to sign a treaty that other countries routinely violate.
"Supporters of the treaty say it's needed to strengthen America's hand when it comes to military and diplomatic matters," he wrote. "Nonsense. The United States is the most powerful country in the history of the world. America doesn't need a piece of paper to make other countries respect its positions."
DeMint's go-it-alone approach is impractical, according to Caitlyn Antrim, executive director of the Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans.
"American business can't call an American destroyer over every time they're having difficulty," said Antrim, who was part of the delegation sent by President Ronald Reagan that negotiated the Law of the Sea treaty. "AT&T can't get a frigate to come and force India to speed up their bureaucracy in approving efforts to fix submarine cables. Businesses ... need a stable and fair international set of rules and processes for enforcing them."
Reagan rejected the treaty in 1983 - a point conservatives stress. What they leave out, Antrim said, is that Reagan pledged to sign the treaty if provisions regarding royalty payments were made more palatable to the U.S. and western nations, she said.
The amended treaty was submitted in 1994, but Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were unable to get it through the Senate because of sovereignty concerns expressed by a small group of vocal opponents.
In the 1990s, then-GOP Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina - nicknamed "Senator No" for bucking the majority - refused to hold hearings on the pact, Antrim said. Now DeMint, who has inherited Helms' old moniker, is trying to derail the treaty.
"That puts (opponents) in the uncomfortable position of opposing Ronald Reagan, opposing the Navy and opposing Big Business," she said.