A United Nations treaty to ban discrimination against people with disabilities went down to defeat in the Senate on Tuesday in a 61-38 vote.
The treaty, backed by President Obama and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for confirmation as dozens of Senate Republicans objected that it would create new abortion rights and impede the ability of people to homeschool disabled children.
“This unelected bureaucratic body would pass recommendations that would be forced upon the United States if we were a signatory,” he said.
Supporters of the treaty argued that the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities would simply require the rest of the world to meet the standards that Americans already enjoy under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.
The treaty was negotiated and first signed under former President George W. Bush and signed again by Obama in 2009. At least 153 other countries have signed it.
Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), John Barrasso (Wyo.), Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins (Maine), Dick Lugar (Ind.), John McCain (Ariz.), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) voted with Democrats in favor of the treaty.
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Democrats and advocates for those with disabilities argued that recommendations from a panel created by the treaty would be advisory only, not binding, and that the treaty did not create any new legal rights in state or federal courts. Democrats brought in several Republican senators, including Dole, a disabled veteran, to help make their case.
Republican opposition was led by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).
Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, Lee said he was concerned that U.N. committee recommendations “often fall well beyond the treaty’s goals.”
“I and many of my constituents who homeschool or send their children to religious schools have justifiable doubt that a foreign body based in Geneva, Switzerland, should be deciding what is best for a child at home in Utah,” Lee said.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said the U.N. committee recommendations would be nonbinding, prompting Lee to ask, “If this does nothing, then why would we ratify it?”
Kerry countered that the treaty would allow the United States to serve on the committee to advocate for the rights of U.S. veterans and citizens living or traveling abroad.
“I have not said it does nothing,” Kerry said. “I said it does not change U.S. law; that is different from saying it doesn’t do anything. If it didn’t do anything I wouldn’t be here, nor would President Bush have signed it.”
In September, 36 Senate Republicans called on the leaders of both parties not to consider any treaties during the lame-duck session. Democrats countered that the current Congress is the best-equipped to approve treaties because its members are the ones who did the work to pass it out of committee over the summer.
McCain, a treaty supporter, argued senators who signed the letter shouldn't feel bound to vote against the treaty because the letter only opposed consideration of treaties, not passage.
“There is no reason we shouldn’t have a vote on this,” McCain said Monday. “The letter says they oppose consideration ... but we have adopted consideration.”