December 4, 2012

Republicans block UN disability treaty

Despite support from prominent Republicans like John McCain and Bob Dole, the GOP successfully blocks a treaty to protect the rights of disabled people in America and around the world.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Led by Republican opposition, the Senate on Tuesday rejected a United Nations treaty on the rights of the disabled that is modeled after the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act.

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This handout video image provided by CSPAN2 shows former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, right, wheeled into the Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 4,2012, by his wife Elizabeth Dole. Frail and in a wheelchair, Dole was a startling presence on the Senate floor as lawmakers voted on a treaty on disabilities. The 89-year-old Republican was in the well of the Senate on the GOP side of the chamber, his wife Elizabeth nearby. Dole recently had been hospitalized but came to the Senate to push for the treaty. (AP Photo/CSPAN2)

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Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., center, gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, to urge Senate approval of an international agreement for protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities. From second from left are, Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Kerry and Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin of Ill. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

With 38 Republicans casting "no" votes, the 61-38 vote fell five short of the two-thirds majority needed to ratify a treaty. The vote took place in an unusually solemn atmosphere, with senators sitting at their desks rather than milling around the podium. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, looking frail and in a wheelchair, was in the chamber to support the treaty.

The treaty, already signed by 155 nations and ratified by 126 countries, including Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, states that nations should strive to assure that the disabled enjoy the same rights and fundamental freedoms as their fellow citizens. Republicans objected to taking up a treaty during the lame-duck session of the Congress and warned that the treaty could pose a threat to U.S. national sovereignty.

"I do not support the cumbersome regulations and potentially overzealous international organizations with anti-American biases that infringe upon American society," said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.

He and other opponents were not swayed by support for the treaty from some of the GOP's prominent veterans, including the 89-year-old Dole, who was disabled during World War II; Sen. John McCain, who also suffered disabling injuries in Vietnam; Sen. Dick Lugar, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee; and former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. Eight Republicans voted to approve the treaty.

The treaty also was widely backed by the disabilities community and veterans groups.

White House press secretary Jay Carney called the vote disappointing and noted that President Barack Obama had declared, in a written statement read in tribute to Dole just before the vote, that "disability rights should not stop at our nation's shores."

Carney said the White House hopes the treaty can be reconsidered in the next Congress.

Democratic support for the convention was led by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, one of the key players in writing the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

"It really isn't controversial," Kerry, D-Mass., said. "What this treaty says is very simple. It just says that you can't discriminate against the disabled. It says that other countries have to do what we did 22 years ago when we set the example for the world and passed the Americans with Disabilities Act."

In a statement after the vote, Kerry said it was "one of the saddest days I've seen in almost 28 years in the Senate and it needs to be a wake-up call about a broken institution that's letting down the American people."

The ADA put the United States in the forefront of efforts to secure equal rights for the disabled, and it became the blueprint for the U.N. treaty, formally the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The treaty was negotiated by the George W. Bush administration. It was completed in 2006 and Obama signed it in 2009.

The United Nations estimates that 650 million people around the world are disabled, about 10 percent of the world's population.

Kerry and other backers stressed that the treaty requires no changes in U.S. law, that a committee created by the treaty to make recommendations has no power to change laws and that the treaty cannot serve as a basis for a lawsuit in U.S. courts.

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