Friday, September 28, 2007

Top Bush administration officials yesterday pressed forcefully for quick Senate ratification of the long-stalled U.N. Law of the Sea treaty, telling a Senate panel that American commercial and military interests are increasingly at risk because the United States remains outside the 155-nation pact.

Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England and Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Patrick M. Walsh told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that criticisms that the treaty would curtail U.S. sovereignty, hurt U.S. businesses or constrain U.S. military missions were, in Mr. Negroponte’s words, “myths.”

Arguments against the treaty, the State Department’s second in command said, “are completely unfounded. … We cannot just go out and negotiate another treaty, much less one that is more favorable.”

But the treaty, which was approved by the committee unanimously three years ago before failing to win a Senate floor vote, could face a tougher road this time, with at least two Republican lawmakers new to the panel expressing deep doubts about the pact.

Treaty supporters say the wide-ranging agreement explicitly exempts military missions from its provisions, but Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, countered that the treaty fails to spell out who decides what constitutes a “military activity.”

“We say it is up to us, but nobody else in the world says it is up to us,” Mr. Vitter said.

John Bellinger, the State Department’s top legal official, told Mr. Vitter that the United States and other countries were making unilateral “declarations” as they ratified the treaty spelling out how they defined military activity and what was covered under the treaty.

But, Mr. Vitter countered that “the fact that we are including that in our ratification resolution only heightens my concern.”

Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, said the United States had special military and commercial interests as the globe’s only superpower, interests that the treaty did not take into account.

He said many of the concerns over loss of national sovereignty that surfaced in the Bush administration’s failed bid to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws were surfacing once again in the Law of the Sea debate.

“This is not a good time to be bringing something like this before the American people,” he said.

With Senate Democrats largely behind the agreement, the fight for the two-thirds majority needed for ratification is expected to be a largely intramural affair among Senate Republicans.

Just one Democrat attended yesterday’s hearing — Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, substituting for absent committee chairman Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware. By contrast, six of the 10 Republicans were on hand, including the four least senior members.

No treaty opponents testified yesterday. The Senate panel plans a second hearing of private supporters and opponents early next month, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has said he hopes to schedule a floor vote by the end of the year.

A coalition of conservative groups have vowed to block the treaty again, which has languished in the Senate since President Clinton first submitted it in 1994.

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