Supporters of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was completed in 2006, stressed that it was modeled after the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and required no changes in U.S. law.
But 36 Republicans in September signed a letter opposing any action on international treaties during the post-election session. The opposition has more than enough to defeat the treaty, which needs a two-thirds majority to be ratified.
The Senate voted 61-36 to move the treaty to the floor for debate.
The convention has been signed by 154 nations and ratified by 126 of those nations. President Barack Obama signed it in 2009.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the impact of the treaty "will echo around the world." He said the Americans with Disabilities Act is the gold standard for protecting the rights of the disabled and the treaty would "take that gold standard and extend it to countries that have never heard of disability rights." He said that it would benefit disabled American veterans who want to travel or work abroad.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which represents more than 210 national organizations, said ratification "will reflect U.S. commitment to disability rights and core American values such as the dignity of the individual, access to justice and the right to education."
But opponents, led by Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, say that international treaties are by their nature a threat to American sovereign authority. Lee also says treaty provisions referring to the "best interests of the child" could lead to the state, and not parents, deciding what is in a child's best interest and that language stating that the disabled should have equal rights to reproductive health services could lead to abortions.
That, said Kerry, was "absolutely, positively, factually inaccurate." He said the treaty only states that a country's laws permitting or banning health procedures should apply to the disabled as well.