WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is pushing for ratification of a U.N. accord on the rights of the disabled less than a year after Senate Republicans rejected pleas for its passage from two former GOP presidential nominees and delivered a stinging rebuke to a global treaty modeled largely on American law.
It's unclear whether the administration has won over Republican skeptics, but top aides to President Barack Obama are lobbying hard for another vote. Secretary of State John Kerry will testify later this week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power has made several trips to the Capitol for meetings with senior lawmakers. Officials have sought to mobilize veterans and disabled groups, religious organizations and the business community in support of the treaty.
"We want to lead the struggle to make these rights universal," Power told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "It would be a very good thing internationally if disability rights were promoted and respected to the extent they are in this country."
The treaty aims to ensure the disabled enjoy equal rights as their fellow citizens, extending many provisions introduced by the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act that was passed by Congress and then signed into law by President George H.W. Bush more than two decades ago. Advocates say U.S. ratification would benefit American veterans, families, students and others wishing to live, travel, work or study overseas by offering the United States a platform to help other governments extend more services for disabled people.
And they argue that little would be demanded of the United States, which has set standards for everything from ensuring wheelchair access and handicapped-accessible toilets in public buildings to rules forbidding workplace discrimination against people with disabilities.
"Ratification of this treaty is not going to affect American law," Power declared. But opposition runs deep among Republicans, and securing the two-thirds majority needed for Senate passage is no sure thing. In December the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities fell five votes short as only 61 senators voted in favor and 38 senators — all Republicans — voted against.
Even the presence of a frail, wheelchair-using Bob Dole, the former Senate majority leader and the Republicans' 1996 presidential candidate, failed to sway party colleagues. Dole, who was wounded during World War II, was joined by Sen. John McCain, the GOP's 2008 presidential candidate who had disabling injuries in Vietnam, and then-Sen. Dick Lugar, until this year the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, in making the conservative case for adoption of the treaty.
Their effort was knocked down by an equally passionate campaign spearheaded by tea party favorite Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. He warned the agreement could lead to the state, rather than parents, determining the best interests of disabled children on issues such as home schooling. Opponents also claimed the treaty could lead to more abortions by guaranteeing the disabled equal access to reproductive health care. Lee's office declined to comment on the administration's new effort, beyond saying the senator remained opposed for the same reasons.
The conservative Heritage Foundation also is against ratification. It says the pact would subject America to a biased U.N. review every four years and do nothing to advance American interests internationally.
"We won't help other countries by joining a treaty," said Steven Groves, a senior fellow at the Washington think tank. "We help other countries by setting an example and providing assistance." Some key moderate Republicans are on the fence. "We want to advance the rights of people who are disabled throughout the world. I want to. I think that's a good thing," Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said earlier this month. He warned, however, that the treaty could expand federal power and interfere in U.S. legal proceedings unless the Senate stipulates its reservations as part of any ratification.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the committee chairman, will put the treaty before his panel as early as next month. A full Senate vote is then likely to follow. Senate Democrats and administration officials hope prospects for passage are better now, a year removed from Obama's re-election and a lame-duck session of Congress that many Republicans considered an inappropriate time for consideration of any treaty. Last year, 36 GOP senators came out against the treaty based on the timing of the vote alone.
Administration officials say they're lobbying significantly harder this time around than last, and they believe they can pick off the handful of additional Republicans needed to secure the treaty's ratification. In a flurry of private meetings and public outreach efforts, they've sought to aggressively push back against what they call misconceptions about a treaty that 138 other governments have ratified.
On the home schooling question, officials are promising the treaty won't prevent any parent from it. They say ratification of the pact would actually make it easier for the U.S. to persuade countries hostile to the practice to loosen their laws on allowing disabled children to be taught at home.
"These are parental rights, which we consider sacred," Power said. On reproductive health care, officials say the language only demands equality under the law for disabled people, compelling no nation to make abortion legal or illegal for all its citizens.
The U.N. treaty was negotiated during President George W. Bush's administration. Obama signed the final product in 2009.