WASHINGTON -- Former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole on Tuesday sat slightly slumped in his wheelchair on the Senate floor, staring toward John Kerry as the Massachusetts Democratic senator gave his most impassioned speech all year, in defense of a United Nations treaty that would ban discrimination against people with disabilities.
Senators from both parties went to greet Mr. Dole, leaning in to hear his wispy reply, as he sat in support of the treaty, which would require that people with disabilities have the same general rights as those without disabilities. Several members took the unusual step of voting aye from their desks, out of respect for Mr. Dole, 89, a Republican who had been the majority leader.
Then, after Mr. Dole's wife, Elizabeth -- herself a former North Carolina senator and 2000 GOP presidential contender -- rolled him off the floor, Republicans quietly voted down the treaty that the ailing Mr. Dole, recently released from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, so longed to see passed.
A majority of Republicans who voted against the treaty, modeled on the Americans With Disabilities Act, said they feared that it would infringe on U.S. sovereignty.
Among their fears about the disabilities convention were that it would codify standards enumerated in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child -- and U.N. bureaucrats would thus be empowered to make decisions about the needs of disabled children -- and that it could trump state laws concerning people with disabilities. The bill's proponents said these concerns were unfounded.
The measure, which required two-thirds support for approval, failed, 61 to 38.
Mr. Kerry, his voice rising as senator after senator moved slowly into the chamber, rejected the concerns of Republicans and made a moral argument for approval of the treaty. Mr. Dole, he said, had not come to the Senate floor "to advocate for the United Nations."
"He is here because he wants to know that other countries will come to treat the disabled as we do," Mr. Kerry said. Approval of the treaty, he said, would demonstrate that "what we do here in the United States Senate matters." He added, "Don't let Senator Bob Dole down."
A handful of Republican senators voted for the measure, notably Arizona Sen. John McCain, in opposition to his state's other GOP senator, Jon Kyl; so did Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Other conservatives were deeply suspicious of the United Nations, which would oversee treaty obligations. Those who opposed the treaty included former Republican presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the father of a developmentally disabled child, who had traveled last week to Capitol Hill to encourage fellow Republicans to vote no.
He and others argued that the treaty could relinquish U.S. sovereignty to a U.N. committee charged with overseeing a ban on discrimination and determining how the disabled, including children, should be treated. They particularly worried that the panel could violate the rights of parents who choose to home school their disabled children. "This is a direct assault on us," Mr. Santorum said.
Nations that have signed on to the treaty include China, Iran and Syria. Opponents said Senate approval might give the impression that the United States accepts how those nations treat their disabled citizens.
"The hard reality is that there are nation-states, like China, who do like to sign up to these organizations and gain the reputation for doing good things while, in fact, not doing good things," Mr. Kyl said.
Supporters dismissed those fears as paranoid, noting that the treaty would change nothing in U.S. law without further approval from Congress.
"With these provisions, the United States can join the convention as an expression -- an expression -- of our leadership on disability rights, without ceding any of our ability to decide for ourselves how best to address those issues in our law," said Mr. Lugar.
The risk of rejection grew after Mr. Santorum and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said they had gathered signatures from 36 fellow Republicans on a letter opposing the measure's adoption during this month's lame-duck session.
Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran originally praised the treaty in a May news release with Mr. McCain, but then voted against it. Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran voted yes at the start of the roll-call vote but later switched his vote to no.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the measure would return to the Senate floor in the 113th Congress. "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," he said in a statement.
The Washington Post contributed.