Dole watches vote on UN treaty on disabled

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 5, 2012 

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, his 89-year old body now weakened by age, illness and war injuries, sat quietly in a wheelchair on the Senate floor Tuesday, watching the debate over a United Nations treaty on the rights of the disabled.

He may have recalled an earlier time.

More than 43 years ago, Dole delivered his first speech on the very same floor - on disability rights. Later, as one of the most powerful members of the Senate, he pushed through the Americans with Disabilities Act, a measure designed to protect citizens grappling with accidents and disease.

Now he had come the Senate floor, perhaps for the last time, to persuade lawmakers to adopt a treaty supporters said would extend disability protections around the world.

"Don't let Sen. Bob Dole down," Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said, raising his voice, pointing at his former colleague. "Most importantly, don't let the Senate and the country down. Approve this treaty."

It wasn't enough.

Only 61 senators voted for the treaty, officially known as the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Sixty-six votes were needed for passage.

Among the 38 members voting against the measure: The two senators from Kansas, Republicans Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts. Both have known Dole for years.

Some Republicans had mounted an intense campaign against the treaty, arguing it surrendered American sovereignty to the U.N.

"I do not support the cumbersome regulations and potentially overzealous international organizations with anti-American biases that infringe upon American society," said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.

But other Republicans - including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who like Dole suffers from a war-related disability - pushed for approval, reading a statement from Dole into the record.

"That's what this is all about," McCain said. "American leadership."

Dole was accompanied to the floor by his wife Elizabeth, herself a former senator. Senate rules allow former members access to the floor, although it is rarely used.

Several members approached Dole during his brief visit, shaking his hands and chatting - before some of them cast votes against the treaty.

The 1996 presidential candidate sat to the left of the Senate's presiding officer and didn't speak. He left before the vote was finished, and didn't talk with reporters outside the chamber.

But advocates for the disabled were furious at the outcome. They were particularly angry at Roberts and Moran.

"I think it's appalling," said Marca Bristo, president of the United States International Council on Disabilities. "Mr. Dole was so proud of what we did ... He was fighting right up until it went out onto the floor."

Rhonda Neuhaus, a policy analyst for the Disability Rights and Defense Fund, wept as she steered her wheelchair out of the Senate visitors' gallery. "It's a betrayal of the disability community," she said.

Roberts was unavailable for comment. But a spokeswoman said the state's senior senator "voted his conscience" and that Dole would understand.

Roberts and Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, who also voted no, had earlier written Senate leadership, asking it to withdraw the treaty until next year. Treaties, they argued, should not be decided in a lame duck session.

Treaty supporters seemed even more upset with Moran. In May he endorsed the treaty - saying, in a press release, that it advanced "fundamental values by standing up for the rights of those with disabilities, including our nation's veterans and servicemembers."

But by Tuesday he had changed his mind. "Genuine concerns raised by the language of this treaty ... have made it clear that foreign officials should not be put in a position to interfere with U.S. policymaking," his statement said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., voted to ratify the treaty. "People with disabilities around the world will pay the price" for its rejection, she said.

The treaty was negotiated by President George W. Bush and signed by President Barack Obama in 2009.

More than 150 nations have also signed the treaty, designed to "promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity," according to the document.

Advocates for the disabled said they would try again next year, and majority leader Sen. Harry Reid said he intends to bring it back.

But it isn't clear how much help Dole can be, given his advanced age and battles with illness.

Just last week he went into the hospital for what a spokeswoman called a "routine" procedure. He has spent a great deal of time in and out of the hospital over the past three years, battling various infections and other maladies.

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