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Sen. Menendez: Treaty would promote the rights of Americans with disabilities

November 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The U.N. adopted a global agreement designed to protect people with disabilities in 2006, but the convention fell short of ratification in the U.S. last December. Margaret Warner sat down with Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., to discuss why he's confident the treaty will be ratified the next time it comes before the Senate.

GWEN IFILL: In 2006, the United Nations adopted a global agreement designed to protect people with disabilities from discrimination. Since then, more than 130 countries have signed and ratified the convention. But when the treaty came before the U.S. Senate last December, it fell short of the two-thirds needed for ratification.

Today, the Foreign Relations Committee returned to the debate once again. Illinois Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran who lost both legs in that conflict, testified, the treaty would protect disabled Americans overseas, as well as citizens of other countries.

But homeschooling advocate Michael Farris of the Home Legal Defense Association warned the treaty would allow the U.N. to infringe on American sovereignty.

REP. TAMMY DUCKWORTH, D-Ill.: It’s not surprising, then, that when disabled Americans travel abroad, we can find ourselves mistreated and rejected simply because we are physically, totally — or cognitively disabled. Blinded veterans have had their guide sticks taken away after being mistaken for weapons. People with artificial limbs have been told to store them in overhead bins.

MICHAEL FARRIS, Home School Legal Defense Association: Despite the claims to the contrary, U.S. ratification of this treaty does impose binding legal obligations on this country, and it will be the responsibility of the United States to comply with international law.

The treaty doesn’t ban homeschooling. What the treaty does is shifts the decision-making authority from parents to the government. That’s what the meaning of the best interest standard is.

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GWEN IFILL: Before today’s hearing, chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner sat down with the treaty’s chief advocate in the Senate, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Menendez, thank you for joining us.

Given all the pressing issues that are on the plate of your committee, why are you trying to review this treaty now?

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ, D-N.J.: Well, I believe this is about promoting the rights of 58 million Americans and 5.5 million veterans who have some form of disability and being able to guarantee through the treaty and our leadership globally to create the opportunities for any American to visit another country in the world and find it more likely than not that they will have the same accessibility standards as they travel abroad for business, for recreation, for sports, for advocacy.

MARGARET WARNER: You fell — this was just last December, the last vote, and you fell six votes short. What makes you think that now you can get the votes?

ROBERT MENENDEZ: Well, several things.

Number one is, many members voted no because they said it was done in the lame-duck session and we shouldn’t have treaties in a lame-duck session. That’s not the case now. Secondly, we have broadened the universe of Republicans helping us with the treaty. Senator McCain, Senator Ayotte, Senator Mark Kirk are all strong advocates of the treaty and are actually helping us in proselytizing members to our goal.

MARGARET WARNER: Though they were with you before, weren’t they?

ROBERT MENENDEZ: But they weren’t — other than Senator John McCain, they weren’t out there actively.

Thirdly, our universe of supporters have grown. We have some of the main veterans organizations, American Legion, the VFW, among others, who are strongly advocating for the treaty. And that is a powerful force, in addition to the disabilities advocacy community, and to a business community that has come to understand that American leadership globally also means creating American standards for accessibility products abroad.

MARGARET WARNER: Have you refined your arguments in any way from the last time?

ROBERT MENENDEZ: I think we’re ready to refute the arguments on homeschoolers, that somehow this will abrogate the rights of parents to school their child at home.

That clearly is not the case. We’re ready for those arguments. We’re ready for the arguments on sovereignty. And we have a universe of those who actually hold some of those views, the desire to homeschool their children, the question of pro-life entities and others, who are strong supporters of the treaty, and we will use them as well to refute these arguments.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you’re saying last time you weren’t necessarily prepared for all those arguments?

ROBERT MENENDEZ: I think that on the homeschooling issue, we were blindsided by the nature of that. We’re fully prepared for that and for other arguments as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Number-one issue raised by the opponents before was that somehow this international treaty would infringe on the rights of states, the rights of the U.S. in general to determine how it provides for people with disabilities, the rights it provides. How do you refute that argument?

ROBERT MENENDEZ: The treaty does absolutely nothing to infringe upon American sovereignty, to infringe upon the rights of parents to teach their children at home or on any other issue, because we already have the highest standard in the world through the Americans With Disabilities Act, through case law, through other federal legislation, that already makes us the highest standard in the world.

So that is a nonissue. Now, there are some people who see any treaty and say, oh, it’s abdication of sovereignty. That’s simply not the case. And, also, we will have something that is always done in a treaty called reservations, understandings, declarations, which is our country will say, here’s our reservations, understandings and declarations as we enter into this treaty.

And those have well-established in case law in the United States that they supersede any other responsibility. So the bottom line is, nothing in the treaty is going to do anything other than to give us the global leadership. Our seat at the table is vacant. We could be leading the world in this regard.

MARGARET WARNER: Last time, you had eight Republicans voting with you. Three of them have left the Senate. If you got all the Democrats and the independents, you’re at 55. Where do you think you are in the count you need to get to 67?

ROBERT MENENDEZ: Well, we’re already at 61, including Republican colleagues that are committed to us. So we’re looking at six votes, six votes for the incredible opportunity for millions of Americans with disabilities to enjoy the same freedom abroad as they do here at home.

And I think that it has to be compelling among our colleagues that have yet to cast a vote on this treaty and/or who will have the opportunity to do so not in the lame-duck period. And then, finally, you know, if we cannot pass this treaty — this treaty is about as much as motherhood, Apple pie as you can get — if we cannot pass this treaty, we’re not going to pass any treaties here on any substantive issues.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Menendez, thank you.