UN disabilities treaty expected to fail in Senate amid GOP opposition

Senate Republicans are expected on Tuesday to reject an international treaty affirming the rights of people with disabilities.

Democrats made a last-ditch effort to secure the two-thirds vote for ratification of the United Nations convention, but appeared to be well short of that mark ahead of Tuesday’s scheduled vote.


Conservative activists have come out in force against the treaty, warning it would pave the way for government interference in homeschooling. Supporters of the pact say it would merely extend the rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act to all nations. 

“This is about Americans and raising the standard of how we treat Americans around the world,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John KerryJohn KerryUS can lead on climate action by supporting developing countries Queen Elizabeth resting 'for a few days' after hospital stay Twenty-four countries say global net-zero goal will fuel inequality MORE (D-Mass.).

Democrats would need only 66 senators to ratify the treaty, due to the absence of Sen. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkDuckworth announces reelection bid Brave new world: Why we need a Senate Human Rights Commission  Senate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls MORE (R-Ill.), but Republican votes have been hard to come by. 

Thirty-six Republican senators signed a letter to Senate leaders in September promising to oppose any treaty brought to a vote during the lame-duck session of Congress.

Democrats had hoped some of those senators would have a change of heart after the election, and were able to peel off two GOP votes last week when Sens. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchLobbying world Congress, stop holding 'Dreamers' hostage Drug prices are declining amid inflation fears MORE (Utah) and Scott Brown (Mass.) voted to proceed to the disabilities treaty on the Senate floor. 

The 61-36 vote to proceed would not have been enough for ratification, however, and three Republicans who abstained from the September letter — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden says he's open to altering, eliminating filibuster to advance voting rights Pelosi says GOP senators 'voted to aid and abet' voter suppression for blocking revised elections bill Manchin insists he hasn't threatened to leave Democrats MORE (Ky.) and Sens. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan GOP lawmakers worry vaccine mandate will impact defense supply chain Top GOP senators want joint review of Afghan visa process MORE (Okla.) and Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranSenate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair Star gymnasts call on Congress to dissolve US Olympics board Expats plead with US to deliver COVID-19 vaccines MORE (Kan.) — voted no, further dimming Democratic hopes. 

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeCawthorn, Lee introduce bills banning interstate travel vaccine mandate Retreating economy creates new hurdle for Democrats in 2022 McConnell vows GOP won't help raise debt ceiling in December after Schumer 'tantrum' MORE (R-Utah), who spearheaded the September letter, is working alongside former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, the Heritage Foundation and the Home School Legal Defense Association to ensure the treaty’s defeat. They warn it would create a U.N. committee that could impinge on U.S. sovereignty.

“Our concerns with this convention have nothing to do with any lack of concern for the rights of persons with disabilities,” Lee said last week. “They have everything to do with protecting U.S. sovereignty, protecting the interests of parents in the United States and the interests of families.”

Opponents of the treaty have also criticized it for not excluding abortion rights.

Democrats say the treaty stays neutral on abortion by calling on governments to offer people with disabilities the full range of family-planning services provided under domestic law. 

Conservative groups pressed for the addition of language that would specify that the treaty does not create any new abortion rights, arguing that abortion is often a form of discrimination against people with disabilities.

All nine Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted for language excluding abortion rights when the treaty came before the panel in July. The amendment failed, and only three Republicans — Sens. Dick Lugar (Ind.), John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoSenate appears poised to advance first Native American to lead National Park Service Sunday shows preview: Senate votes to raise debt ceiling; Facebook whistleblower blasts company during testimony The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit MORE (Wyo.) and Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonHerschel Walker calls off fundraiser with woman who had swastika in Twitter profile Georgia reporter says state will 'continue to be a premier battleground' Critical race theory becomes focus of midterms MORE (Ga.) — joined the 10 Democrats on the panel voting for passage.

Democrats were trying Monday to convince on-the-fence Republicans that a “no” vote on the Senate floor would be politically painful.

The treaty has the support of a handful of Republican senators — including former presidential candidate John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain to Trump: 'Thanks for the publicity' Grant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Will Trump choose megalomania over country? MORE (Ariz.) and Republican Policy Committee Chairman Barrasso — as well as many advocates for people with disabilities and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. 

Former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) is expected to champion the treaty in a return to the Senate floor Tuesday after denouncing the “scare tactics” used by its opponents in a letter distributed Monday.

Democrats have also roped in former Attorney General and Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh, who was President George H. W. Bush’s point man on the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.

The treaty, Thornburgh said Monday, would cede “no authority to the U.N. over the U.S. or any of its citizens. None. Zero.” He said the U.N. committee’s recommendations would be purely advisory and could not require the United States to change its laws or pass new ones and would not create any legal rights in state or federal courts.

The treaty was negotiated under President George W. Bush and was signed by President Obama in July 2009. It has been signed by at least 153 countries in addition to the United States.

Lee in his letter said the lame-duck session would not be an “appropriate” time for passage of treaties that will become the “supreme law of the land.”

Kerry countered by saying the Senate has passed treaties 19 times during lame-duck sessions. He said the sitting senators, who “did all the work” sitting in on the committee’s markup of the treaty this summer, should be the ones to vote on it.

President Obama, in a statement marking the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Monday, said U.S. leadership on a key human-rights issue is at stake.

“Ratifying the convention in the Senate would reaffirm America’s position as the global leader on disability rights,” Obama said, “and better position us to encourage progress toward inclusion, equal opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency for persons with disabilities worldwide.”