Treaty to expand disability rights overseas is threatened in Senate, frustrating Senator John Kerry and advocates

WASHINGTON – Despite the overwhelming wish among Americans for an end to partisan standoffs in Washington, the fate of a treaty to promote international rights for people who are blind, crippled by disease or war, and otherwise disabled indicates that the Senate continues on a divided path.

The treaty’s troubled fortunes provide a twist on the usual tale of congressional gridlock, however, because Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and other supporters of the pact enjoy considerable bipartisan support as well as broad backing from the business community and veterans groups.

Two prominent Republicans, Arizona Senator John McCain and former attorney general Richard Thornburgh, joined Kerry at the Capitol on Monday to demand passage. It is backed by former Kansas senator Bob Dole, the GOP presidential nominee in 1996, and former president George H.W. Bush.


Yet Republican senators threaten to kill the pact Tuesday based on what proponents call groundless allegations that it would encourage abortions overseas, threaten home-schooling programs domestically and elsewhere, and potentially separate children from their parents. The conservative Heritage Foundation is among opponents who also have suggested that giving an international entity advocacy powers for the disabled would erode US sovereignty and pose threats to the profits of American multinational corporations. Some in the GOP oppose the measure on procedural grounds, saying a lame-duck session of Congress should not entertain a treaty vote.

Because a two-thirds Senate super-majority is required to ratify a treaty, Kerry – the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee – is fighting an uphill battle.

A clearly frustrated Kerry told reporters Monday he is about four votes short, but thinks a handful of senators still might be willing to end their opposition. Dole is expected to be present on the Senate floor during the Tuesday vote in an 11th-hour bid bid for support.

“If any vote in this polarized, dysfunctional age should be able to get outside of what has ground Washington to a halt, this is that vote,’’ Kerry said. “It is too important for it to become a casualty of the same old partisan gridlock that has characterized the Senate over the last year.’’


The treaty would add the United States as a party to a United Nations convention aimed at imroving conditions for people with physical and other disabilities around the world. The international committee established to do the work does not have the power to order governments to take action, but can recommend action.

The pact, called the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilites, has the support of the US Chamber of Commerce and a number of American multinational corporations including General Electric, McCain and Thornburgh said.

Currently 125 countries are parties to the convention; President Obama signed it in 2009 and submitted it to the Senate this year for ratification. It has strong support among disability advocates in the United States, including the Perkins School for the Blind, in Cambridge.

The treaty “should not be controversial’’ in the United States, said Steven Rothstein, president of the Perkins School, which provides services to people with disabilities all over the world. He called the situation ironic, since the United States already has the gold standard for disability rights on its own books, the Americans with Disabilities Act.

He cited an estimated 4.5 million children worldwide who do not go to school because they are blind, as well as countless other citizens of foreign countries who are denied work and educations because of various disabilities. The US should set an example and join efforts to support basic rights for these populations, said Rothstein.

“I couldn’t sleep at night if I were a senator and did not vote for this,’’ he added.


McCain said much of the opposition is from conservative lawmakers and groups who typically do not approve of cooperation with the United Nations. In this case he urged his colleagues to export the US example.

“America is a more loving and caring nation because we passed the Americans with Disabilities Act,’’ McCain said. “This treaty is simply an expansion of that kind of rights to people all over the world who don’t have them today. It is not an infringement of American sovereignty.’’

Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown is among Republicans who support the treaty. The majority vote in July in Kerry’s Foreign Relations Committee recommending ratification was 13 to 6, with all nay votes cast by Republicans, including Tea Party figures Marco Rubio of Florida, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and Mike Lee of Utah.

Rubio — a potential candidate for president in 2016 — sought to amend the treaty in committee to exclude abortion rights from a section on health-care and reproductive health, but the amendment failed. Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who failed in his quest for the GOP presidential nomination, claimed on CNN last month that the treaty would undermine parental rights and give authorities power to block families from home-schooling their children. Kerry and others say such fears are unfounded.

Responding to complaints from the GOP that a treaty should not be taken up during in the period between the election and the seating of the next Congress in 2013, Kerry said Monday that the Senate had ratified 19 treaties during lame-duck sessions. Kerry scored one of the biggest victories of his tenure as Foreign Relations chairman in the last lame-duck session, in December 2010, when he labored mightily to get the required bipartisan roster of votes to pass the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.

Now Kerry is in contention to get Obama’s nomination for secretary of state and replace Hillary Clinton. Kerry’s prospects appear to have improved recently after the other leading candidate, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, ran into opposition among Senate Republicans, including McCain.

Kerry was asked Monday whether he was seeking to push the disabilities treaty through the Senate as a capstone to his Senate service, in the event he does win the secretary of state post. Kerry said there was no link, that Republicans who support the pact were the ones who asked him to push it now.

“This is something I support, but I didn’t choose this moment for it to go forward,’’ he said.

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