WASHINGTON — It had been 16 years since Bob Dole stepped down as Senate Republican leader, ending a legislative career in which he earned a reputation as a master of bipartisanship. Yet there he was at the end of 2012, trying to close a deal.
Dole was 89 years old, just out of the hospital, working the phones to win senators’ support. Then, in a dramatic effort, he rolled in his wheelchair onto the Senate floor, all but daring senators to vote against him and, by proxy, anyone with a disability.
It was a moment Dole had long awaited. He had brought the parties together to pass his greatest piece of legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which required the retrofitting of buildings and sidewalks and provided an array of other rights.
Now he wanted the Senate to approve an international treaty that would spur other nations to pass their version of the law, making the United States a role model to help tens of millions of people around the world.
Do it for Dole, supporters urged.
But what had once seemed like a foregone conclusion – passage of the treaty — went awry amid infighting that few had foreseen. The deepest wound — some considered it betrayal — came from a Republican senator from Dole’s home state of Kansas. That senator, Jerry Moran, had announced he supported the treaty and would be “standing up for the rights of those with disabilities.” But instead of carrying the Dole flag into battle, Moran wound up casting a crucial vote against the measure, dismissing his initial support by saying in an interview he “had never made a conclusion as to whether I was for it or against it.”
The treaty’s defeat on Dec. 4, 2012, was a defining moment for the Senate, even if it received far less notice than crises such as the fiscal cliff.
A reconstruction by The Boston Globe of the events leading up the defeat provides an inside look at how the Senate, once known as the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” has become overwhelmed by partisanship — even on a seemingly uncontroversial measure aimed at helping some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
It demonstrates how outside groups and powerful constituencies exert outsized influence with arguments that are, in their best light, often tangential to the issue of the day.
As Dole sat in his Washington law office in February, still stunned by the outcome, he blamed his own party and suggested a headline: “Republican Party closes its doors to make repairs.” The GOP, added Dole, one of the party’s most revered figures, “needs a timeout” to tone down the antigovernment rhetoric.
To be sure, Dole says there is a larger problem of political dysfunction in which Democrats also share blame. But if there is a legislative tale that symbolizes the rise and fall of bipartisanship in Washington during the past quarter-century — and the Republican Party’s own schism — it is the story of Dole’s initial success and recent failure on behalf of people with disabilities. It is also the story of Dole himself, discovering how Washington has changed and become a broken city.
Era of bipartisanship
The story begins with an era of bipartisanship that is almost impossible to imagine today.
It was 1989, and Senator George Mitchell, the Maine Democrat, had become the majority leader. Dole was the minority leader. At their first meeting, Mitchell said he promised Dole, “I will never criticize you,” and Dole agreed to the same. “To this day, we never have had a harsh word,” Mitchell said in a February interview. “It is an important thing that leaders have some degree of trust.” The two remain “dearest friends,” Mitchell said.
They saw their job as meeting halfway. “I thought when I was elected I was supposed to do something,” Dole said.
And they did. The 1989-90 session was one of the most bipartisan and productive of the past 40 years. Democrats and Republicans joined together to pass a new version of the Clean Air Act, the most sweeping environmental legislation in the nation’s history. The parties worked together — after then-President George H.W. Bush famously broke his “no new taxes” pledge — to cut the deficit and help put the nation on the path to budget surpluses.
One of the most enduring acts was the passage of Dole’s proposal to enhance the rights of millions of people with disabilities.
Dole had been wounded in Italy in World War II, leaving him with limited use of his right arm. While he recovered from most of his wounds, he learned that many people with disabilities had a hard time getting employment, or getting to work, and even just getting around. A person in a wheelchair faced obstacles traveling on sidewalks or ascending buildings or getting into bathrooms. Some people with disabilities were forced into separate schools. To Dole, this was a matter of civil rights. After being elected to the Senate in 1968, he gave his first floor speech on April 14, 1969, the 24th anniversary of his wounding. He spoke then, as he did on every such anniversary while he served in the Senate, on problems faced by people with disabilities.Continued...