John Kerry held a press conference Monday in support of disabilities treaty (Photo by Lisa Hagen)

By Lisa Hagen
BU News Service

WASHINGTON—With a large majority of Republicans senators voting in opposition, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., Tuesday fell five votes short of achieving ratification of a treaty designed to ensure that those living with disabilities enjoy equal rights worldwide.

With 66 votes – two-thirds of voting senators – needed for ratification, the U.N. Treaty on the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities failed on a 61-38 vote. All 53 Democrats voted in favor of the treaty, and were joined by eight Republicans, including all four New England GOP senators: Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine.

Also voting in favor of the treaty was Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., his party’s 2008 presidential nominee.

But 38 Republican senators – many of whom had earlier signed a letter objecting to the consideration of such treaties during Congress’ current “lame duck” session – voted to block ratification.

In a statement following the vote, Kerry charged that the defeat was the result of a “dysfunction [that] hurt veterans and the disabled,” and that the opponents had ignored both the facts underlying the treaty and its bipartisan support.

“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,” he said in a statement. “We need to fix this place because what happens and doesn’t happen here affects millions of lives.”

Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., now 89 and recently discharged from the hospital, made an appearance on the Senate floor in a wheelchair in an effort to bolster support for the treaty. Dole has suffered from the limited use of his right arm since he was severely injured as a soldier in World War II.

U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., the first quadriplegic elected to the House, also was present for the Senate vote.

Responding to objections to considering the treaty during the lame duck, Kerry noted that, since 1970, 19 treaties have been ratified during lameduck sessions.

“There is nothing special or different about a lame duck. It’s a session of the U.S. Congress,” Kerry said on the floor before the vote. “And just as we are going to consider important fiscal matters, we should consider other important matters.”

But the treaty also came under attack from some conservatives who said it contended that it could override U.S. law and undermine this country’s sovereignty.

Among the leading opponents was former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a contender for this year’s presidential nomination and the father of a disabled daughter. He joined conservative legislators in arguing that the treaty would allow parents to be separated from their disabled children, as well as affect issues relating to homeschooling and abortion.

At a press conference a day prior to the vote, Kerry and other advocates dismissed as myths the contentions that the treaty would impact U.S. law or sovereignty.

“All it does is create a committee on the rights of persons with disabilities and all it can do is review reports and make a suggestion,” Kerry added Tuesday on the Senate floor. “The Foreign Relations Committee even included language in the resolution of advice and consent to make it crystal clear.”

Referring to the opponents, Kerry added: “All of their arguments have been contradicted by the facts and the law. How is it possible that such a treaty could threaten anybody in our country? The answer is simple, it doesn’t, and it can’t.”

Adopted in 2006 by the United Nations, the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in late July. A Kerry spokesman noted that, to date, 153 nations and the European Union have signed on to the treaty, and 126 of these have ratified it.

Steven Rothstein, president of the Perkins School of the Blind in Watertown, Mass., said in a telephone interview that the opposition to the treaty is “embarrassing” for the United States, since many of the nations that have ratified it do not has as “strong” a disabilities law as this country.

“We have taken a step back and have shown how dysfunctional the Senate is,” Rothstein said. “We can’t come together even with support from former President George H.W. Bush and Sen. Bob Dole, who are known to be more conservative Republicans.”

According to McCain, the treaty received support from all major veterans groups, along with more than 300 disabilities groups, about two-dozen faith-based organizations, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Declared Kerry, “We won’t give up on this, and the disabilities treaty will pass because it’s the right thing to do.”

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Michelle Johnson

Michelle Johnson

Michelle Johnson is an Associate Professor of the Practice, Online Journalism, Boston University.
Michelle Johnson

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