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U.S. Senate panel advances global disabilities treaty

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate committee voted on Tuesday to advance a U.N. treaty to protect people with disabilities from discrimination, but the agreement faces a tough fight winning the two-thirds majority needed for ratification by the full Senate.

Although 146 nations and the European Union have ratified the United Nations convention, it has failed to win approval in the deeply divided U.S. Senate, where many conservatives are wary of subjecting American social policies to global laws.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 12-6 in favor of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Only two Republicans, John McCain of Arizona and John Barrasso of Wyoming, joined the panel's 10 Democrats in favor.

The treaty is supported by leading U.S. military veterans organizations, advocates for the rights of people with disabilities and business groups.

Opponents, including many socially conservative Republicans, worry it could expand abortion rights, threaten U.S. parental rights such as the ability to home-school children, and shift power to the federal government from U.S. states.

The treaty's backers dismissed those concerns and accused opponents of injecting divisive social issues into the debate to score political points.

"It is so wrong to the disabled people to catch them up in this debate," California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer said during heated discussions in the committee meeting.

Backers said the agreement would face stiff resistance winning the 67 votes it would need to be ratified by the full 100-member Senate, where Republicans hold 45 seats.

The treaty was defeated by just five votes in the Senate in 2012. McCain, a war veteran and strong advocate for the treaty, said: "We won't quit on this issue because we believe it is a fundamental issue of human rights."

To press the issue, McCain and other treaty backers scheduled a news conference on Wednesday with representatives of veterans organizations, including the American Legion and Vietnam Veterans of America, and former Kansas Senator Bob Dole, a wounded war veteran who has championed the international accord.

Dole, now 91, was badly injured while fighting in World War Two, but went on to a long career in public office that included stints as Senate Majority leader and the 1996 Republican presidential nomination.

He watched from a wheelchair in the Senate in 2012 as members voted against ratification.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by David Storey, Bernard Orr and Andre Grenon)

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