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GOP appears to have killed Law of the Sea Treaty

Official U.S. Navy Imagery/Flickr

It's become extremely difficult -- far more difficult than any point in American history -- for Congress to pass legislation. But treaties are even harder, since they require 67 votes for passage. Even if every member of the Democratic caucus backs a treaty, it would need 14 Republicans to go along, and in this Congress, that's an implausibly high number.

This is particularly relevant this week because of the Law of the Sea Treaty, negotiated 18 years ago, and ratified by 161 countries around the globe. Here in the U.S., it's been endorsed by the Clinton administration, the Bush administration, the Obama administration, business leaders, the State Department, the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs, and specifically U.S. Navy leaders who, as Josh Rogin explained, see the measure as necessary "to allow the United States to fully participate in the growing multinational system that governs the open seas."

In the Senate, hopes were raised when the treaty earned the backing of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Committee Ranking Member Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), who began the ratification process with a "24-star hearing" -- a panel with six military officers with four stars each. For its part, the Obama administration told senators the treaty would allow the U.S. to "secure mineral rights in a larger geographical area, would ensure freedom of navigation for U.S. ships, and would give the country better leverage for claims in the Arctic."

And yet, despite all of this, Senate Republicans have apparently succeeded in killing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

As of [yesterday], 34 Republican senators have expressed opposition to Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, a number that would add up to rejection of the treaty if all those senators vote against it when it comes to the Senate floor.

"This is Victory Day for U.S. sovereignty in the Senate," Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), a passionate opponent of the treaty, proclaimed on the Senate floor late Monday. "With 34 opposed to LOST (the treaty), this debate is over."

Inhofe's declaration of victory came after two Republican senators, Romney surrogates Rob Portman (R-OH) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), announced Monday they would vote against the treaty.

What happened? Why would Republicans dismiss the pleas of American military leaders? Well, it's an odd story.

As Kerry and Lugar began their efforts in earnest, so too did far-right activists, who had irrational fears, based on little more than paranoia, that the measure would give the United Nations power over American laws. Fox News and other conservative media outlets soon began trumpeting the talking points, which were aggressively pushed by John Bolton and other extremists, that our "sovereignty" was being put at risk by treaty backers, including the U.S. military.

Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice -- Republican Secretaries of State from Republican administrations -- wrote an op-ed, urging Senate ratification, but GOP senators were more inclined to listen to Dick Morris.

Yesterday, Sens. Portman and Ayotte were the apparent nails in the coffin. It's no coincidence that both Portman and Ayotte are being considered for their party's vice presidential nomination, which means they have to take ridiculous policy positions that make the GOP base happy. Had either endorsed the treaty, Fox News would not have been pleased.

And so international rules for the world's oceans will have to wait once more.