WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint is rallying Republican opposition in the U.S. Senate to U.N. treaties pushed by the Obama administration that aim to expand disability rights, set law for the seas and place controls on the international arms trade.
DeMint’s activism is an unusual foray into foreign affairs for the Greenville senator, who normally focuses on cutting federal spending. But it enables the second-term South Carolinian to rally conservative activists on hot-button issues, such as home schooling and gun control.
“Our founders warned us not to get entangled with foreign governments with unnecessary treaties,” DeMint said Wednesday. “We don’t need to go beyond our Constitution and federalist system by allowing our fundamental rights to be dictated by unaccountable and unelected international bureaucrats.”
In 42 months in office, President Barack Obama, a Democrat, has submitted 11 international treaties to the Senate, which, under the Constitution, must approve any bilateral or multilateral accord by a two-thirds vote for it to be ratified. Some of the treaties took years to negotiate and were backed by his Obama’s predecessors.
With Democrats now holding 53 Senate seats, Obama needs to pick up votes from at least 14 of the 47 Senate Republicans in order to enact any of the accords and make them binding on the United States.
“The Obama administration is trying to move forward with numerous treaties,” DeMint said. “They include one that gives the U.N. control over the oceans that are two-thirds of the world’s surface, another that empowers government agents to make decisions on children with disabilities instead of parents and even a treaty on international gun control rules that would erode our Second Amendment rights.”
In recent months, DeMint has tangled with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the accords, opposed U.S. military leaders and gone up against other GOP senators.
Of the three accords cited by DeMint, the one with the broadest bipartisan Senate support is the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which 117 nations have ratified since its December 2006 adoption at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York.
After a one-week delay forced by DeMint, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is set to take up the disabilities accord today, the 22nd anniversary of President George H. W. Bush signing into law the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act.
Four Republicans on the panel are likely to join its 10 Democrats in approving the U.N. disabilities treaty and sending it to the full Senate, where DeMint aides acknowledge the Tea Party hero faces an uphill battle in preventing ratification.
At a July 12 hearing on the accord, U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who backs it, read a letter of support from former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the 1996 GOP presidential nominee from Kansas who is disabled from a World War II wound that left his right arm emaciated and limp at his side.
“This landmark treaty requires countries around the world to affirm what are essentially core American values of equality, justice and dignity,” Dole wrote.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Seneca Republican and close ally of McCain, hasn’t taken a position on the accord, which is backed by several disabled veterans’ groups. Graham, a military lawyer, is the only member of Congress to have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gloria Prevost, head of the Columbia-based group Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, said the treaty is modeled after the 1990 U.S. law.
“That law has done amazing things for people with all sorts of disabilities, and we would like to see something like it expanded across the world,” she said. “This treaty will protect Americans citizens who work, study, travel or live abroad.”
Many disabled children are educated at home, and some prominent home-school advocates oppose the U.N. treaty. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a 2012 presidential candidate, joined their ranks last week with his wife, Karen.
DeMint also is trying to block Senate ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, collecting signatures from 30 Republican senators who oppose it.
Graham, South Carolina’s senior senator, has not signed the letter. He has close ties with Pentagon leaders, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and senior military officers, and influential business groups that support the treaty.
The accord was first adopted at the United Nations in 1982 but rejected by President Ronald Reagan. After it was amended in 1994 to address U.S. concerns, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush sought ratification, but the treaty has never reached the Senate floor. A total of 161 nations have ratified it.
At a Senate hearing in May, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the treaty would help U.S. Navy ships navigate by defining international sea laws.
Secretary of State Clinton has criticized opposition to the accord. “It’s unfortunate because it’s opposition based on ideology and mythology, not on facts, evidence or the consequences of our continuing failure to accede to the treaty,” Clinton said.
However, DeMint, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and other Senate foes of the accord say it would impose new royalties on U.S. oil and natural gas exploration under the sea and expose the United States to lawsuits by international environmental groups.
Andrew Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia University, said the treaty has protections against impingements on U.S. sovereignty. “It’s not like the international community would send in sheriffs with handcuffs forcing us to do something.”
DeMint also is mobilizing opposition to the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty, which is in final negotiations at the United Nations.
Supporters say the accord will help prevent terrorists or other extremist groups from getting weapons. But the National Rifle Association is warning it could be used to block gun sales to Americans.