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Senate GOP rejects U.N. disabilities treaty

The Senate failed to ratify a U.N. treaty to enshrine the rights of disabled people Tuesday, after right-wing groups mounted a successful effort against the pact. The Senate voted 61-38 on the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but 66 votes were needed for ratification. Eight Republican senators voted in favor of ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Senate failed to ratify a U.N. treaty to enshrine the rights of disabled people Tuesday, after right-wing groups mounted a successful effort against the pact.

The Senate voted 61-38 on the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but 66 votes were needed for ratification. Eight Republican senators voted in favor of ratifying the treaty, which enshrines in international law most of the rights afforded to disabled people in the United States by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. A total of 125 countries and the European Union are parties to the treaty, but not the United States. And not this year.

"This is one of the saddest days I've seen in almost 28 years in the Senate and it needs to be a wakeup call about a broken institution that's letting down the American people," said Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) in a statement after the vote. "We need to fix this place because what happens and doesn't happen here affects millions of lives... It had bipartisan support, and it had the facts on its side, and yet for one ugly vote, none of that seemed to matter. We won't give up on this and the Disabilities Treaty will pass because it's the right thing to do, but today I understand better than ever before why Americans have such disdain for Congress and just how much must happen to fix the Senate so we can act on the real interests of our country."

The Senate failed to ratify a U.N. treaty to enshrine the rights of disabled people Tuesday, after right-wing groups mounted a successful effort against the pact.

The Senate voted 61-38 on the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but 66 votes were needed for ratification. Eight Republican senators voted in favor of ratifying the treaty, which enshrines in international law most of the rights afforded to disabled people in the United States by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. A total of 125 countries and the European Union are parties to the treaty, but not the United States. And not this year.

"This is one of the saddest days I’ve seen in almost 28 years in the Senate and it needs to be a wakeup call about a broken institution that’s letting down the American people," said Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) in a statement after the vote. "We need to fix this place because what happens and doesn’t happen here affects millions of lives… It had bipartisan support, and it had the facts on its side, and yet for one ugly vote, none of that seemed to matter. We won’t give up on this and the Disabilities Treaty will pass because it’s the right thing to do, but today I understand better than ever before why Americans have such disdain for Congress and just how much must happen to fix the Senate so we can act on the real interests of our country."

Former Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) worked hard in the failed effort to push forward ratification, even though his health is failing. He was on the floor in a wheelchair during the beginning of the vote with his wife, former Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC), and Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI), the only paraplegic member of Congress.

The treaty engendered the late opposition of some Senate Republicans and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), who activated his Patriot PAC to build grassroots conservative momentum against ratification. The Heritage Foundation’s advocacy arm, Heritage Action, has also taken up the cause of opposing the treaty based on the idea it infringes upon American sovereignty, along with the Family Research Council.

Santorum claimed the treaty "would put the state in the position of determining what is in the best interest of a disabled child," and allow the government to overrule parents when making decisions about their disabled children.

Santorum held a press conference late last month with his own disabled daughter and Rep. Mike Lee (R-UT), who decried the treaty as an assault on American sovereignty. Lee argued with Kerry during Tuesday’s floor debate over whether the treaty would affect U.S. law, as Lee claimed. Kerry pointed out that the treaty’s ratification would not change U.S. law and noted that it was negotiated in the George H.W. Bush administration with the help of Dick Thornburgh, who was also on Capitol Hill this week to support ratification.

In response, Lee admitted that the treaty does not directly alter U.S. law, but said it could have unintended consequences in the future.

"We shouldn’t be ratifying a treaty that we think might offset U.S. law as it exists now, and we believe that this could have that impact," Lee said. "Now, exactly where that’s going to come up, I can’t prove to you where that’s going to happen. But it does have some impact."

Santorum’s Patriot PAC sent out a fundraising e-mail shortly after the vote, claiming credit for the defeat of the ratification effort.

The failure of the ratification represented a rebuke to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who passionately advocated for ratification. Congressional sources said McCain was trying to persuade his Senate colleagues to vote for ratification until the last minute. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) even requested the vote be postponed until after the caucus lunch so that McCain could address his colleagues on the matter, sources said, but Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) objected to that idea.

McCain protégé Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) voted with McCain to ratify the treaty, but Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who is up for reelection in 2014, voted against ratification.

A procedural vote last week on the treaty advanced the ratification legislation by a 61-36 tally. On Tuesday, two Republican senators who previously supported the treaty changed their stance and opposed it: Sens. Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Jerry Moran (R-KS). Cochran originally voted yes, but changed his vote to no after it became clear the vote would fail. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) had voted for the treaty ratification when it came up in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but voted against ratification on the Senate floor.

Moran, who is from Dole’s home state, was strongly for ratification of the treaty before he was against it.

"Each person has the inherent right to life and should have the opportunity to pursue happiness, participate in society, and be treated equally before the law," Moran said about the treaty in May. "The CRPD advances these fundamental values by standing up for the rights of those with disabilities, including our nation’s veterans and servicemembers, and respecting the dignity of all."

UPDATE: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) issued a statement accusing Republicans of succumbing to pressure from right wing groups and promising to bring the treaty up again in the Senate next year.

"Today, we had a chance to lead, and we failed because a small group of Republican senators fear the Tea Party more than they care about equality for people with disabilities," Reid said. "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."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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