WASHINGTON - President-unelect Rick Santorum made his triumphant return to the Capitol this week and took up a brave new cause: opposing disabled people.
Specifically, Santorum, joined by Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah), urged the Senate to reject the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities - a treaty negotiated during George W. Bush's administration and ratified by 126 nations, including China, Russia, Iran, Cuba, and Syria.
The former presidential candidate pronounced "grave concerns" about the treaty, which forbids discrimination against people who have AIDS, are blind, use wheelchairs, and the like. "This is a direct assault on us," he declared.
Lee, too, has "grave concerns" about the threat to U.S. sovereignty. "I will do everything I can to block its ratification, and I have secured the signatures of 36 Republican senators, all ... saying that we will oppose any ratification of any treaty during this lame-duck session."
Santorum praised Lee for having "the courage to stand up on an issue that doesn't look to be particularly popular to be opposed." Courageous? Or just contentious? The treaty requires virtually nothing of the United States. It essentially directs the other signatories to update their laws to more closely match the Americans with Disabilities Act. Even Lee thought it necessary to note that "our concerns with this convention have nothing to do with any lack of concern for the rights of persons with disabilities."
Their concerns, rather, come from the dark world of U.N. conspiracy theories. Opponents argue that the treaty, like most everything the United Nations does, undermines American sovereignty - in this case via a plot to keep Americans from home-schooling and making other decisions about their children.
The treaty does no such thing; if it had such sinister aims, it surely wouldn't have the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Republican senators such as John McCain, and conservative legal minds such as Dick Thornburgh.
But the opposition is significant because it shows the ravages of the Senate's own disability: If members can't even agree to move forward on an innocuous treaty to protect the disabled, how are they to agree on something as charged as the "fiscal cliff"? And although the number of senators who actually oppose the treaty - including Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania - is probably quite small, Lee's boast of 36 signatures means he has persuaded enough of his colleagues to block action on it.
Santorum made an emotional appeal, even bringing his daughter Bella, who has a severe birth defect, along for the event. "What it does is open up a Pandora's box for the most vulnerable among us: children with disabilities," he said. Yet opponents couldn't agree on how this box would be opened.
Still, their spurious theory of a U.N. takeover of parenting was enough to lead Lee and Santorum to oppose a treaty that would extend American values worldwide, and guarantee disabled people equal treatment and freedom from torture and exploitation.
Santorum justified his opposition by saying that other countries wouldn't actually enforce the provisions. "It does not provide any moral leadership," he said. But in this fight against rights for the disabled, Santorum doesn't have a leg to stand on.