Thursday, July 26, 2012

Glimmers of Bipartisanship on Foreign Policy

Who says Congress can't get anything done during an election year? Granted, lawmakers may not be addressing the country's urgent fiscal challenges, but they do appear poised to further tighten the economic vise on Iran as punishment for the mullahs' continued intransigence on nuclear enrichment.

The European Union's oil embargo and United States sanctions barring transactions with the Central Bank of Iran have only been in force for a few weeks, but members on both sides of the aisles are already itching to go further. The House and Senate are now trying to hash out the final details of a consensus piece of sanctions legislation, based on bills the House passed in December and the Senate in May. New measures under consideration would effectively cut off Tehran's energy and financial sectors from the rest of the world.

Those involved in the current negotiations -- half a dozen or so offices in addition to the lead negotiators Sen. Tim Johnson, D-SD, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL -- are optimistic a compromise bill is going to be ready for a vote next week. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has signaled he's prepared to make floor time for it. Ros-Lehtinen has even suggested it could move by voice vote in the House, a sign of just how broad the support is in the chamber.

Congress may also succeed in passing legislation granting Russia permanent normalized trade relations in time for Moscow's formal accession to the World Trade Organization in August. Without it, U.S. companies cannot get preferential access to Russia's newly opened markets under the WTO framework. The legislation has the support of leading Republicans and Democrats in both chambers (CQ subscription required), but Moscow's surly behavior on the world stage in recent months -- its stance vis-a-vis Syria being the most glaring example -- hasn't won it any friends on Capitol Hill, and passage in both chambers is still something of a wild card.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Tale of Two Treaties

Ratifying treaties is one of the few direct levers of influence Congress -- specifically the Senate -- has over U.S. foreign policy. So it's interesting to see how members have approached that duty in recent years.

Whereas 30 years ago controversy over treaties was the exception, now it seems to be the rule. One of the main reasons for that is the strong segment of the Republican party that is unabashedly skeptical of any international pact that could subject the United States to foreign standards or regulation. So even something like the Law of the Sea Treaty (CQ subscription required) -- a United Nations convention that has been ratified by more than 160 countries and has the backing of traditional GOP constituencies like the oil industry and the Chamber of Commerce -- is facing serious headwinds (CQ subscription required) in the current Congress.

Two-thirds of the Senate have to vote to approve ratification of a treaty for the U.S. to move forward with it, and 31 Republicans have already signaled their opposition to the Law of the Sea, which would regulate countries' and companies' use of the deep seas. Essentially, opponents do not like the prospect that U.S. would be accountable to an international panel for its deep sea exploration and navigation. Many of the same Republicans voted against ratification of the New START arms reduction treaty with Russia in 2010, though the Senate ultimately approved that pact by a narrow margin.

One treaty, however, looks poised to buck the trend of air-tight votes. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities -- which would raise international standards for the treatment of the disabled -- has a bipartisan group of senators backing it, from conservatives who have opposed most other treaties to liberal members of the Senate Democratic leadership. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's hearing on the treaty was a relatively innocuous affair and the committee has now scheduled a vote on Thursday July 19. It could actually win Senate approval by July 26, the disability advocates because it marks the 22nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. That would be lightning quick by the standard of today's Congress.

UPDATE, 7/17:

Three more Republican senators announced their opposition to the treaty, pushing the total that have expressed public objections to 34 -- just enough to block ratification (CQ subscription required) should it come to a vote.