Second Time Around

by Betsy Woodruff

The U.N. treaty on the disabled faces an uncertain fate in the Senate.

It’s back. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which fell five votes short of the two-thirds needed for ratification last December, is once again a point of contention in the Senate. The Foreign Affairs Committee had a hearing on the treaty on November 5, and sources tell National Review Online to expect a second hearing sometime next week. Behind the scenes, Republicans have started gearing up their efforts to stop its ratification.

The caucus isn’t totally united, though. A handful of Republican senators, including John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, Mark Kirk, John Barrasso, and Lisa Murkowski, are on the record supporting ratification. In fact, Ayotte and Kirk testified in favor of it at the last hearing. And Senator Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), the chairman of the committee, told PBS NewsHour’s Margaret Warner that he thinks the treaty has rosier prospects this time around than last, in part because of more vocal Republican support.

Kirk, who uses a wheelchair because of a stroke, is one of the strongest Republican voices in favor of the treaty. He told me he’s optimistic that more Republicans will vote for the treaty this time. He also says that he hopes to recruit Senator Jeff Flake, a freshman Republican from Arizona who wasn’t in the Senate the last time the treaty came up for a vote, to the yea side. Flake says he hasn’t made up his mind but is leaning towards voting against ratification.

Some Republicans privately agree that the treaty’s odds of passage are higher this time. One Senate Republican aide close to opponents of the treaty tells National Review Online that he thinks blocking ratification will be more challenging than it was last December, in part because of the shutdown.

“We have a lot of post-shutdown fatigue on the Republican side,” he says. “This is not the easiest issue to be out in front on being opposed to.”

He adds that some Republicans are tired of being perceived as contrarian and obstructionist. “That is my fear, that there’s a little bit of that,” he says.

Last December was a lame-duck session, and a few dozen senators had signed a letter saying they wouldn’t vote to ratify any treaties before the next swearing-in. The aide adds that since there was discussion of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea during that lame-duck session, Senate Republicans already had more of an appetite for a fight; there was widespread frustration with efforts to move on treaties during the lame-duck session, and that made Republicans more comfortable withholding support. So this time is different, he says.

Other Republicans are less concerned. One senior GOP aide told National Review Online that top Senate Republicans are staunchly opposed to the treaty and “watching it like a hawk.” He adds that they’re very sympathetic with the concerns of homeschooling parents, many of whom fear the treaty could potentially undermine their rights to educate their disabled children as they see fit.

“I know leadership is taking this very seriously,” he adds.

Dan Holler of Heritage Action implied to National Review Online that the group will key-vote against the treaty, as they did last time. Homeschool groups have vocally opposed it, and Rick Santorum and his group, Patriot Voices, are also working against it; he says he’s been in contact with senators about the treaty.

“I don’t know why as a Republican you would vote for this,” he says. “There’s no reason to vote for it.”

He adds that he doesn’t know of any Republican senators who opposed the treaty in December but plan to vote for it this time, and that he expects the freshman Republicans to vote against it. “This isn’t saying, I hope the Dallas Cowboys win,” he adds. “It’s not a resolution saying, Gee, rah-rah for our team. This has legal consequence, it has constitutional consequence.”

Steven Groves of the Heritage Foundation tells National Review Online that concerns about the treaty are tied to overarching frustration with the United Nations.

“It’s the mischief and abuse that the U.S. can suffer from,” he says, “both directly, when they go to Geneva and get abused by these human-rights committees, and indirectly when these treaties are used to advance supra-constitutional norms in the U.S.”

“I always use the word mischief,” he adds, “because I think that’s what fits the best for how lefty human-rights activists use these treaties to advance rights that are not recognized under our Constitution.”

Senator Jim Risch (R., Idaho), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a vocal opponent of the treaty, says he finds the expanding influence of the U.N. to be problematic.

“I have been outspoken and critical of the ballooning reach of the United Nations into every aspect of our lives,” he says. “At the end of the day, this is a matter of national sovereignty for the United States and every other country in the world. We have sufficient problems right here in America to deal with without attempting to meddle in every aspect of the laws of other countries.”

The treaty’s advocates will have a tough task dissuading enough Republicans from Risch’s position.

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.