The 2006 treaty, which forbids discrimination of the disabled, has enjoyed bipartisan support. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the treaty would encourage other nations to develop the kind of protections the United States adopted 22 years ago with the Americans With Disabilities Act. The international treaty’s thrust, he said, was a message: “Be more like us.”
But the treaty has split Republicans. Among its most vocal supporters were Republican war veterans, including President George H.W. Bush and former senator Bob Dole, who was injured in World War II and made a rare return to the Senate floor Tuesday to observe the vote and lend his stature.
Other conservatives were deeply suspicious of the United Nations, which would oversee treaty obligations. Those who opposed the treaty included former senator and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, the father of a developmentally disabled child who had traveled to Capitol Hill last week to encourage fellow Republicans to vote no.
He and other conservatives argued that the treaty could relinquish U.S. sovereignty to a U.N. committee charged with overseeing a ban on discrimination and determining how the disabled, including children, should be treated. They particularly worried that the committee could violate the rights of parents who choose to home school their disabled children.
“This is a direct assault on us,” Santorum said.
Nations that have signed on to the treaty include China, Iran and Syria. Opponents said that American approval might give the impression that the United States accepts how those nations treat their disabled citizens.
“The hard reality is that there are nation-states, like China, who do like to sign up to these organizations and gain the reputation for doing good things while, in fact, not doing good things,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.)
Supporters dismissed those fears as paranoid, noting that the treaty would change nothing in U.S. law without further approval from Congress.
“With these provisions, the United States can join the convention as an expression — an expression — of our leadership on disability rights without ceding any of our ability to decide for ourselves how best to address those issue in our law,” said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.).
The risk of rejection grew after Santorum and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) announced that they had gathered the signatures of 36 fellow Republicans on a letter opposing the adoption of the measure during this month’s lame-duck session.
But its proponents had pushed forward in hopes of peeling off a handful of Republican opponents. Senators were greeted this week near their basement subway by veterans and others in wheelchairs who pushed for support.
In deference to the solemnity of the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) asked that senators cast their votes while seated at their desks — a rare move to observe the chamber’s formal rules that require each senator to respond to the clerk’s announcement of their name with an “aye” or “no.”
In practice, senators usually vote by giving a signal to the clerk — sometimes a thumbs up or down.