A United Nations treaty advocating equal rights for disabled people faces significant Republican opposition in the Senate this week as lawmakers fear it could cede U.S. sovereignty and is not something that should be addressed during the lame-duck session.
Supporters of the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, which is scheduled for debate — and possibly an up-or-down vote — on the Senate floor Tuesday, say it's nonbinding and wouldn't change or challenge U.S. law.
The Senate's Democratic majority, along with some Republicans, say the treaty is based on the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 and would help protect disabled Americans abroad.
"We have the opportunity to help ensure that millions of disabled Americans — our wounded service members included — are treated with the same level of respect and dignity they have at home while they are traveling or living abroad," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and a leading advocate of the treaty.
"If any issue can withstand this age of polarization, it should be this one."
But Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, isn't convinced the U.N. committee created to promote the rights of the disabled globally would have only an advisory role. Similar panels, he said, have made demands on national governments that fall outside their legal, economic and cultural traditions.
Mr. Lee also said the treaty is being rushed through the Senate, complaining that only one hearing — in July — has been held.
"It is very important to have a full understanding of what these treaties mean," the senator said on the chamber floor in September. "I and some of my colleagues are not yet comfortable" with its language.
The Senate last week voted 61-36 to move the treaty to the floor for debate. It requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate for ratification, or 67 votes if all 100 senators vote.
Thirty-six GOP senators, led by Mr. Lee and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, have signed a letter opposing any action on international treaties during the postelection lame-duck session — more than enough to block the treaty.
The U.N. adopted the treaty in 2006. President Obama signed it in 2009, though it failed to move through the Senate — which must ratify all treaties — until this year. It has been signed by 154 nations and ratified by 126.
Critics fear the treaty could strip Americans of fundamental rights, such as denying parents the ability to home-school a child with disabilities if the U.N. committee — or another body carrying out its recommendations — determined it would be in the best interests of the child.
Conservatives also worry that language calling for the disabled to have equal rights to reproductive health services could lead to abortions.
Opponents say the treaty is unnecessary because rights of Americans with disabilities are well protected under existing law.
"U.S. membership in the [convention] would not advance U.S. national interests either at home or abroad," Steven Groves, who heads the conservative Heritage Foundation's Freedom Project, blogged Monday. "The United States should continue to lead by the example it has set for protecting the rights of Americans with disabilities through comprehensive legislation and enforcement — and leave emotion out of it."
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