Senate Dems to resurrect United Nations treaty opposed by home schoolers

Senate Democrats will try to resurrect a United Nations treaty on rights for the disabled that was rejected last year over GOP concerns it would imperil home-schooling.

The treaty fell five votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority in a 61-38 vote in December after former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) led a charge that it would give unelected UN bureaucrats the power to challenge U.S. home-schooling.

Treaty supporters say those worries were unfounded, and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations panel hopes to win approval of the treaty, a Senate Democratic aide said.

Menendez hopes to strike a deal on a way forward with the panel's top Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who voted against the treaty last year.

While last year’s vote took place after the presidential election, advocates believe the debate got tied up in election-year politics and that a revote this session could be successful.

The treaty would extend the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act to people with disabilities around the world, including Americans living abroad, according to advocates.

“We believe very much there is a path forward for victory,” said Marca Bristo, president of the U.S. International Council on Disabilities. “If we didn't, we wouldn't be putting in this effort.”

Opponents have long warned that it may come back up. Last month, the Home School Legal Defense Association jumped the gun and sent out an action alert to its members warning – inaccurately – that Menendez's panel had scheduled a hearing for June 4.

“Thank you for joining us in this battle to protect our children and our children’s future,” wrote association president J. Michael Smith. “You defeated this treaty last year. Standing together, we can defeat this treaty once again.”

The treaty's path to ratification remains a challenging one.

Although Democrats gained two seats in the 2012 elections, only three of last year's “no” votes were replaced – all of them by fellow Republicans: Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) have given way to Sens. Jeff Flake, Tim Scott and Ted Cruz.

And Democrats have since lost Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), whose seat is being temporarily filled by Jeffrey Chiesa, a Republican, until a special election in October.

But Advocates say the situation has changed in their favor.

Bristo said several lawmakers opposed the treaty in part because the vote was held during the lame-duck session, after the voters had cast their ballots for new lawmakers to make decisions on their behalf. And, she said, Democrat may allow amendments to address remaining issues for Republicans who are on the fence.

“There's a variety of senators out there who we think if they stand by what they said are very gettable,” she said.

She's also “very positive” Sen. Mark Kirk will join the “yes” column after being sidelined all last year because of a stroke.

In addition, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) had voted for the treaty in committee before voting "no" on the floor.

Treaty advocates say they have one more factor in their favor: Recent reversals on conservative social issues that have Republicans worried about their party's appeal.

The Supreme Court's ruling in favor of gay marriage and the Senate's passage of immigration reform – both issues that polls show have the support of a majority of Americans – may persuade some Republicans that voting against a treaty that has the support of a broad swath of people with disabilities of all political stripes is not in their best interest.

“There comes a point when a lot of these galvanizing issues with a social component, when you're on the wrong side of too many of them it has an effect,” the Democratic aide said. “You have voices within [the Republican] Caucus making the case that 'we need to get our act together'.”


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