Senate Republicans Vote Down International Disabilities Treaty

Bob Dole lobbied Republicans to vote for the disabilities treaty

The U.S. Senate today killed the ratification of a United Nations treaty designed to improve the prospects of those with disabilities around the world by a vote of 61-38, ending the best chance of any significant treaty making its way through the lame duck session. All “no” votes came from Republicans and the measure fell just five votes short of achieving the two-thirds of the Senate approval required for passage.

In voting down the Convention on the Rights of People with Disability, Senate Republicans have rejected a treaty based principally around the United States’ own Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which passed 91-6 in 1990. The major provisions of the treaty were modeled after ADA’s requirements of providing equal access to all citizens regardless of disability; it’s passage also would have given the United States a seat on a committee charged with aiding in implementation.

An impassioned Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) took to the floor just prior to the vote, challenging arguments that the treaty would encroach on American sovereignty and require significant changes in current law. Instead, Kerry charged, the treaty could be boiled down to four words, “Be more like us.” Kerry, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was joined in pressing for the approval of convention by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in a rare moment of bipartisanship.

Kerry also wrote a op-ed in the Huffington Post earlier today, laying out the provisions of the treaty and shooting down arguments against it:

So let’s be clear: the Disabilities Convention is a non-discrimination treaty. It won’t create any new rights that do not otherwise exist in our domestic law. What are the U.S. obligations under this Treaty? Simple: prevent discrimination on the basis of disability only with respect to rights that are already recognized and implemented under U.S. law. In other words — keep doing what we already have done for the 22 years since we proudly passed the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As for the notion that this treaty supports an expansive “social” rather than a “medical” definition of the term “disability,” shifting the focus from physical to attitudinal barriers for persons with disabilities, don’t let the critics fool you.

It’s true that some countries were advocating for an unacceptable definition of “disability” during treaty negotiations. But those efforts failed. The counterarguments of the United States–and Dick Thornburgh–were successful and the flawed definition was not included in the treaty. Bottom line: the Treaty leaves it up to each country to apply the term “disability” consistent with its domestic laws.

Opposition to new treaties has become endemic among Republicans. GOP obstruction also lead to the blocking of the Convention on the Law of the Sea during this session, despite the united support of business and military leaders behind it. The near failure also implies that the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, both opposed by the 2012 GOP Platform, won’t be moving forward anytime soon.

Former Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS), also a previous Senate Majority Leader and 1996 candidate for President, was on the floor to lobby for Republican votes to help pass the treaty, but not even his presence, just days after being released from a brief stay in the hospital, was enough to save the vote.

Instead, Republicans chose to stand with former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) in his castigation of the treaty’s provisions. In doing so, they’ve managed to prevent millions of parents around the world from being afforded the safe protection of their children with disabilities that Santorum enjoys and denied the United States the ability to prompt other states to live up to its standards.


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has vowed in a statement to bring the Convention on the Rights of People with Disability back to the floor next year:

This treaty was about 57 million Americans who live with a disability. Republicans such as former President George H.W. Bush, Senator McCain and former Senator Bob Dole called on their Republican colleagues to support these Americans. I am saddened those Senators did not listen. Their arguments against the treaty had no basis in fact – the treaty does not change United States law. That is why I plan to bring this treaty up for a vote again in the next Congress. Our wounded veterans and millions more around the world deserve better.

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