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Albert R. Hunt: Will senators deprive disabled of protections?

  • Bloomberg News
  • Published Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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Any suspicion that the political right, after suffering a defeat on the debt ceiling and facing threats from business donors, is losing its clout can be dismissed by the fight over the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities.

The treaty has been ratified by 141 countries. It is backed by the White House, former President George H.W. Bush, the major U.S. disability and veterans advocacy groups, and American businesses.

Senate Republicans, however, already defeated the treaty in 2012, and it now faces an uphill slog to get the two-thirds vote needed for ratification. Right-wing critics led by former Sen. Rick Santorum, the Heritage Foundation and homeschoolers charge that adopting it would allow global enforcers to dictate the treatment of Americans with disabilities or the permissibility of homeschooling, and ease access to abortion.

In reality, the treaty is modeled on the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. It states that nations must ensure that people with disabilities get the same rights and are treated with the same dignity as all others. It might well pressure other countries to adopt U.S. standards.

Proponents say American leadership is important, a demonstration of the soft power of ideals and values. If passage emboldens other nations to elevate their standards, it will make life easier for Americans with disabilities, including veterans, when traveling outside the U.S.

The treaty has a distinctively Republican flavor. The Americans With Disabilities Act was the signature domestic achievement of George H.W. Bush’s presidency, and the U.N. treaty was negotiated by his son’s administration. The most important champion is former Senate Republican leader Bob Dole, a disabled World War II veteran; it is supported by another former Senate GOP leader, Bill Frist, a physician.

Its chief backers in the current Senate are John Barrasso, R-Wyo., another physician who is one of the most conservative members of the chamber, and John McCain, R-Ariz., a disabled veteran.

Veterans’ organizations backing the treaty include the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and the Wounded Warrior Project. It is embraced by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and major companies.

The opposition from Santorum, Heritage, a slice of the homeschooling movement and a few right-wing Catholic organizations seems, on the surface, a mismatch. Yet these groups are very vocal, and they capitalize on many Republicans’ fears of challenges from the right.

Dole, who showed up in his wheelchair in 2012 to lobby (unsuccessfully) for the pact, said that ratification is such an easy call that when he ran the Senate it “would have passed by voice vote.” He remains optimistic that it will pass this time, though he said he was worried because “a few senators aren’t returning my calls.”

There probably are 61 votes for the treaty. That number includes all the Senate Democrats plus six Republicans.

It needs six more Republicans to pass. The targets include the senators from Dole’s Kansas, Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts, and the latter is scared stiff of his conservative challenger.

Supporters may not get the votes, which Tim Shriver, the chairman of the Special Olympics, finds astounding.

“What values here do these opponents not believe in?” he asked. “This treaty brings to the table a place where America is the shining light on the hill.”

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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