The Senate will hold a showdown Tuesday over a U.N. treaty to protect people with disabilities, and former Republican Sen. Bob Dole will take to the Senate floor to try to ensure Republicans don't kill Senate ratification of the pact.
The U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was negotiated by the George H.W. Bush administration and would codify in international law most of the rights afforded to disabled people currently enshrined in American law since the passage of the Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The convention was adopted in 2008 and the United States signed it in 2009, but the Senate has yet to ratify it. It has been ratified by 125 countries and the European Union.
The treaty was expected to get broad bipartisan support in the Senate, which passed the original ASA 91-6. But after a wave of opposition emerged last month, a procedural vote to move the treaty forward last week in the Senate only passed 61-36, and 66 votes are needed to ratify the treaty for Tuesday's vote.
The Cable has learned that Dole will use his privileges as a former senator to be on the Senate floor Tuesday during the debate and vote on the treaty in a dramatic effort to force any Republicans who intended to vote against the treaty to walk past him to do so.
The eleventh-hour opposition is related to the opposition of some Senate Republicans and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA). Santorum claims 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 is touting a September letter signed by 36 senators stating they did not want to ratify any treaties during this lame duck session of Congress. That letter was intended to prevent ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, but now Lee is seeking to apply it to the disabilities treaty as well.
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. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council claimed, "The global community could force America to sanction sterilization or abortion for the disabled -- at taxpayer expense."
In a press conference Monday, Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ), called those assertions "ridiculous" and unfounded. They were joined by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI), the only quadriplegic member of Congress, and Republican Dick Thornburgh, the former U.S. attorney general and governor of Pennsylvania.
"Anyone who suggests that this committee is a threat to American sovereignty is simply not telling the truth," Kerry said. "This treaty does not require one change in American law. This treaty does not require or permit anybody to go to court in America. It merely sets a standard in the rest of the world to lift up their treatment of people with disabilities... What it does is make it easier for Americans with disabilities, for veterans with disabilities, to travel, work live, study, and visit overseas. That's all it does."
"If any vote should be able to get outside of the dysfunction that has ground Washington to a halt, this is that vote," Kerry said.
Kerry pointed out that 19 treaties have been passed during lame-duck sessions, including the New START nuclear reductions pact with Russia ratified in the last lame-duck session in 2010. He also pointed out that next year there will be more Democrats in the Senate, suggesting passage will be easier in 2013.
"We can't let interest groups outside here who have whatever interests they have to simply disregard the facts or completely distort or rewrite them. Some people are trying to make a mountain out of a molehill," Kerry said.
McCain agreed. "It is not an infringement on American sovereignty. Actually, it is an expansion of the American example and the American ideal throughout the world," he said.
McCain then emphasized the role of Dole, who has been working hard behind the scenes to ensure American support.
"There's an old man who's been in and out of Walter Reed quite a bit lately. He was our inspiration in the Senate when we passed the ACA 25 years ago. He is committed and he has urged us to act. I think it would be a fitting legacy for one Robert Dole of Russell, Kansas, if we could pass this legislation so he could have one more celebration."
Monday happens to be the international day designated to honor people with disabilities, and Dole will receive a congressional award honoring his decades of work on the issue Tuesday.
Durbin noted that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee dealt with several of the specific concerns of some Republicans, such as amendments to ratification legislation making explicit that nothing in the treaty would alter U.S. law on abortion or home schooling.
"These issues have nothing to do with this treaty and we've made that expressly clear," Durbin said. "This has reached a new height of legal mendacity and political conspiracy."
The vote is expected to be close, however, and supporters are hoping that some GOP senators who voted against the procedural motion on the bill will ultimately vote for ratification. Several senators are believed to have no substantive objections to the bill but may have voted against the procedural motion due to the fact they signed the letter opposing lame-duck session treaty ratifications.
Key GOP senators to watch on the vote include Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Rob Portman (R-OH), and Pat Roberts (R-KS).
In one light-hearted exchange during the press conference, McCain responded to Kerry's introduction by saying, "Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary," a reference to Kerry's potential nomination to be secretary of state.
"Thank you very much, Mr. President," Kerry responded. "See, this is what happens when you get two losers up here, folks. We're just having fun."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.