Bipartisan ADA celebration clouded by current climate

President Biden focused on landmark law and what comes next

President Joe Biden signs a proclamation to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), alongside artist Tyree Brown, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, former Rep. Tony Coelho, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House on Monday.  (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden signs a proclamation to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), alongside artist Tyree Brown, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, former Rep. Tony Coelho, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House on Monday. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted July 26, 2021 at 1:56pm

The White House’s Monday celebration of the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act did not escape some signs of modern partisanship.

But when President Joe Biden called his former Senate colleague, Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, onstage for the signing of a proclamation honoring the 31st anniversary of the ADA, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy began taking pictures with the Vermont Democrat’s omnipresent camera.

It was a bipartisan moment at a Rose Garden ceremony that looked back on the groundbreaking law’s bipartisan history.

“The ADA gives all Americans the opportunity to fully participate in our democracy, in our economy and in our society,” Vice President Kamala Harris said. “The ADA was a very important beginning, but there is still so much work to be done both on enforcement and on future legislation.”

Both the president and vice president spoke about the challenges for voters with disabilities when they try to go to the polling place, from broken elevators and issues with ramps to the heights of tables.

Biden called the ADA a “triumph of American values,” before adding, “But, of course, this law didn’t bring an end to the work we need to do. Today, too many Americans still face barriers to freedom and equality, but thanks to this movement that spans all races, beliefs, backgrounds and generations, we’re once again making progress together.”

He also renewed his call for legislative action to improve pay for caregivers, as well as for making it illegal to pay workers with disabilities a subminimum wage.

Biden highlighted the presence of Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., the first quadriplegic elected to Congress, and former Rep. Tony Coelho, D-Calif., the lead House sponsor of the law, who has epilepsy. The president also said he had recently spoken with both former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan, who recently celebrated his 98th birthday, and former Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.

It was almost a decade ago, when Harkin was still a key leader in the Senate, that Dole tried and failed to cajole his fellow Republicans to support a United Nations disability treaty.

Neither was among the attendees at the event Monday, but their ability to work across the aisle stood as a stark reminder of how polarized the current Congress is.

McCarthy and the top House Democrats — Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer — were present Monday at the White House. Their standoff over the composition of a select committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol virtually ensured that modern partisan divides would creep into the event.

McCarthy spoke to reporters gathered in the Rose Garden ahead of the event, with a military band playing in the background, and used the opportunity to criticize Pelosi’s decision to reject his proposed appointment of Reps. Jim Banks, R-Ind., and Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, to the select committee.

McCarthy responded by pulling back his other proposed GOP picks. When asked about Republicans who think it would make more sense for the GOP Conference to participate in the process, McCarthy responded, “Who was that? Adam and Liz? Aren’t they kind of like Pelosi Republicans?”

He was referring to GOP Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who have been appointed to the panel by the Democratic speaker.

But that underscored the reality that for as much as Biden has yearned for the era of comity that helped lead to legislative victories like the ADA, 2021 looks far different. Aside from the select committee fracas, lawmakers and the White House are wrangling over a sweeping bipartisan infrastructure bill and an even larger reconciliation measure that is likely to only get Democratic votes.

“I’m confident we’ll get something,” Hoyer told reporters at the White House when asked about the legislative proposals. “Both Republicans and Democrats want to pass an infrastructure bill; you say ‘I’m not going to do this, I’m not going to do that.’ Let’s let it play out.”