Two Republican senators sat before their colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, urging them and the rest of the caucus to join Democrats in approving a treaty codifying U.S. commitment to supporting the rights of the disabled around the world.
Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) were both on the witness list for the first hearing this Congress on the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD), which has been languishing in the Senate since 2009 when President Barack Obama signed it.
Seated before the panel, Ayotte read out a statement from former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS) who last year lobbied hard to have the treaty finally be ratified. “While I cannot stand before you in person today, I approach you in the strong hope that on your second examination of this important treaty, you will again do the right thing and advance the rights of disabled individuals from the united states and throughout the world,” Ayotte read out.
“In so doing,” she continued, “I am privileged to join with over 20 veterans organizations, 40 religious groups, more than 700 disability and allied groups, dozens of you on both sides of the senate aisles, and many other prominent Americans who recognize the imperative of the United States’ leadership on this issue, a leadership that will be imperiled without the United States’ ratification of the CRPD.”
Kirk, who suffered a stroke in 2012, told the panel of the importance of the treaty to himself and others who face the challenges he now does. “I would like to say, as a recently disabled American, to speak for what I would call my ‘fellow broken people,’ how important this issue is and to adopt this convention,” Kirk said.
The Illinois senator showed the committee a picture of a constituent who was wounded in Iraq, one of the many that Kirk has spent hours in rehabilitation alongside. “You cannot hold those guys back,” Kirk said. “I would say that this convention allows people to become victors instead of victims.”
Their testimony comes only days after Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) teamed up with committee chair Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) to publish an op-ed in USA Today urging approval of the treaty. “The United States has already been the trailblazer for the rights of the disabled around the world,” the two wrote. “Now is not the time to step away, but the time to step up and continue to lead by ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”
Despite that level of support, when the treaty last came before the Senate, in a lame duck session last year, the vote failed, just five votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed for ratification. Even having Dole on the floor to lobby for Republican votes to help pass the treaty, just days after being released from a brief stay in the hospital, wasn’t enough to save the vote. What’s more several Republicans allegedly voted against the treaty even after assuring Dole they would support it.
A large part of the opposition the treaty faces comes from outside groups, like former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s Patriot Voices. On Tuesday, the group sent out an email to its members urging them to lobby their senators against the bill
“CRPD threatens U.S. sovereignty and parental rights, and if ratified, it would effectively put us under international law when it comes to parenting our special needs children,” Santorum claimed in a statement in the body of the email. “While CRPD may on the surface appear to protect those with disabilities, it actually gives the government the power, with direction from the U.N., to decide what is best for our children.”
Santorum’s beliefs about the threat the CRPD presents are echoed in the writing of other conservatives like Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint. Despite their concerns, the CRPD is based principally on the United States’ own Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which passed 91-6 in 1990. As such, it would not require any changes in U.S. law, instead serving as a model for other countries who have yet to accept the treaty’s provisions.