The 89-year-old former Senate majority leader, GOP presidential nominee and World War II veteran was escorted onto the floor in a wheelchair Tuesday by his wife, former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., to rally support for the United Nations disabilities treaty.
Last week, he was being treated at the Walter Reed National Medical Military Center. This week, he was trying to buttonhole colleagues to support an initiative to extend the rights granted to Americans under the Americans with Disabilities Act to citizens of the world.
Dole was gravely injured during World War II when his right arm was shattered in battle, and he has been a longtime advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, particularly veterans.
One by one, Senators of both parties approached the frail national leader, with former colleagues gently resting their hands on his shoulder or reaching out to his left hand, briefly clasping hands with the man who once presided over the chamber with a mix of wit, tactical guile and ruthlessness.
Then, one by one, after Dole was wheeled off the floor, most Republicans voted against the measure. Many members did not register their “nay” votes verbally, instead whispering their opposition directly to the clerk or gesturing their hands from their chairs.
Dole’s dramatic appearance did not secure the 13 Republican votes needed to ratify the treaty. In fact, only eight members of the caucus he once led joined Democrats to back the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, which would have expanded rights to disabled people globally.
Several conservative groups, Glenn Beck and former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., opposed the treaty because they said it would allow the U.N. to overreach and impose on the rights of member countries.
The text of the treaty, however, does not seem to support this assertion. Some of the Republicans who voted “aye” on the bill said as much.
“It would take a step toward making it easier for disabled Americans to live and work overseas, without impinging on U.S. sovereignty or Congress’ authority to determine our disability laws,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a rising star in the conservative ranks, said in a statement. “Veterans service groups are especially supportive of the treaty, which would help level the playing field for disabled veterans who are abroad.”
Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., changed his vote from an “aye” to a “nay” after it was obvious the treaty would fall short of ratification. Cochran is up for re-election in 2014 and could face a primary challenge from his right.
Other Republicans who could face primary challenges from the right this cycle but who might have made the difference on the vote also voted against the treaty: Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
Alexander, in an emailed statement, would not say whether he supported the treaty, merely noting that the timing of the vote was bad.
“Congress needs to devote all its attention in December to a budget agreement that reforms entitlement spending, reduces the debt and avoids the fiscal cliff. There’s plenty of time to consider treaties, including the disability treaty, after the first of the year,” the statement read.
When asked whether he was disappointed in his colleagues for not backing the measure, Barrasso, the only member of GOP leadership to support the treaty, demurred.
“I co-sponsored this. I voted for it in committee. Voted for it on the floor. I am an orthopedic surgeon and so I’ve practiced medicine for 25 years and for all that time, I was a host of the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon for people with muscle disease. I read the treaty and I support it,” Barrasso told Roll Call. “Every member of the Senate gets to make their own decision when they give advise and consent on treaties. And every senator is asked to vote, and I voted in favor of the treaty today. You read different things and different concerns, so I don’t question or criticize any other member for the vote.”
Barrasso added that there was a small reception for Dole outside the Senate Foreign Relations Committee room before the vote, and he said he, Collins and McCain, along with several Democrats, “met to honor” the former Kansas Senator and his wife.
After the vote, Heritage Action for America CEO Michael A. Needham released the following statement: “We congratulate the Senators who stood for American sovereignty by refusing to ratify this treaty. While today’s vote is important, it does not mark the end of the fight. Bad treaties never die in Washington and Heritage Action will remain vigilant.”
Last week on the floor, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., characterized Dole’s health status as “infirm.” The current majority leader had a brief conversation with the former majority leader before the roll was called.
“It is a sad day when we cannot pass a treaty that simply brings the world up to the American standard for protecting people with disabilities because the Republican party is in thrall to extremists and ideologues,” Reid said after the vote. “I plan to bring this treaty up for a vote again in the next Congress. Our wounded veterans and millions more around the world deserve better.”
An earlier version of this article misstated how many Republican members supported the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities.
Visitors get their first look at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which opened to the public on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. The new memorial is located off Independence Ave. SW between the Rayburn House Office Building and HHS. Buy photo here.