WASHINGTON—The August congressional recess is in full swing, and that means politicians everywhere are staking out battle positions for the fall. Tax reform, the sluggish economy, immigration reform, and the budget debate are among the pressing issues, but President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry spent the weekend bringing a different issue back to the table: A controversial disabilities treaty.
“I know how disappointing it was last year when the Senate failed to approve the disabilities treaty,” Obama told a group of military veterans on Saturday. “We’re going to keep fighting to ratify that treaty, because the United States has always been a leader for the rights of the disabled.”
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) came five votes short of the 66 it needed for ratification last year. But treaties never fully die, because they can be brought back up for a vote at any time—and that’s what proponents plan to do. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to begin considering the CRPD when Congress returns.
“Its purpose lies squarely in the best traditions of our great country,” Kerry said in a short video message released Friday. “It’s time for action on the Disabilities Treaty.”
Proponents of the law say it would extend the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act and help U.S. citizens traveling abroad. Obama signed the treaty four years ago, but the process stalled in lieu of the two-thirds Senate majority vote necessary for ratification.
Although the CRPD picked up several endorsements from key establishment Republicans—including former President George H.W. Bush and former GOP presidential candidates Bob Dole and John McCain—most Senate conservatives fought against the pact. Article 6, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution guarantees any Senate-approved treaty will become the “supreme law of the land,” leading opponents to argue the CRPD would infringe on U.S. sovereignty, promote abortion, and potentially interfere with parents’ rights to homeschool their children.
On Friday, Kerry promised the treaty does “not require one change to an American law” and “does not contain one single onerous mandate.”
“I don’t know how he can say that,” said Will Estrada, director of federal relations for the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), noting Article 18 of the treaty requires a national registry of children born with disabilities. “They’re either ignoring that or willfully lying about it.”
Focus on the Family’s CitizenLink, the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, the Family Research Council, and other conservative organizations joined HSLDA in opposing the treaty last year, and Estrada said more groups are engaged this time. Joni and Friends, the organization started by quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada, also denounced the CRPD last year, saying it would do more harm than good.
The battle lines in the Senate may be similar this time around, but they will include new leaders for both sides: Kerry, the most vocal advocate for the treaty, and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, the most vocal opponent, both left the Senate earlier this year. Estrada said four Republican senators will lead the opposition: Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida—both on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—and Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas.
“We like the odds better this time,” Estrada told me. “The whole issue is going to come down to a handful of seven Republicans who voted against it last time.”
New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, are expected to lead the push for the treaty’s approval.