WASHINGTON, July 30 The Democratic-controlled Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, over the objections of the Bush administration, approved an international
treaty today that is intended to eliminate discrimination against women. The vote
set up a politically divisive floor fight pitting women's rights groups against
religious and social conservatives.
The treaty, known as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
Against Women, or Cedaw, requires member nations to reduce barriers against women
in housing, politics, employment, health care and legal systems.
The convention requires that women have equal rights to work, pay and benefits.
It also guarantees safe working conditions and prohibits discrimination based
on a woman's political activities.
But conservative groups have asserted that the treaty could be used by feminists
to impose their agenda from abortion rights to employment quotas
on sovereign nations, including the United States.
Under fierce pressure from conservatives, the Bush administration
which has said it supports the treaty's broad goals had asked the Senate
to postpone the vote to allow the Justice Department time to review the pact.
But Democrats rejected those pleas, intent on scheduling a floor vote before the
midterm elections, when they hope pressure from women will force moderate Republicans
to support the treaty.
"The treaty is a means to an end, a tool which strengthens the ability of
the United States, as well as women's advocates around the world, to press nations
to expand rights for women," said Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democrat from
Delaware who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
The treaty's supporters acknowledged that it still faced an uphill battle.
Ratification requires 67 votes in the Senate, meaning supporters will have to
find at least 16 votes among the Republicans. In the vote today, 2 Republican
Senators Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Gordon H. Smith of Oregon
joined the committee's 10 Democrats in supporting the pact.
Treaty supporters said their initial vote counts indicated that they were
still at least 3 votes shy of 67. Some Democrats said that if ratification was
not assured, they would not want to bring the treaty to the floor this fall
meaning it would be sent back to committee for action next year.
But Eleanor Smeal, president of Feminist Majority, an advocacy group for women's
rights, said there would be pressure on Republicans, including President Bush,
to support the treaty if it reached the floor.
"Our biggest obstacle is delay," Ms. Smeal said outside the committee room
today. "It's pretty hard to say you're not for women's rights."
President Carter signed the treaty as he was leaving office in 1980, but Presidents
Reagan and Bush declined to seek ratification. In 1994, at President Clinton's
urging, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommended passage, but the treaty
was never brought up for a full Senate vote.
Scott McClellan, a spokesman for the White House, said the administration
"strongly supports the goals" of the treaty, but has serious questions about whether
it might infringe on the country's laws.
In a letter to Mr. Biden on July 8, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell expressed
concerns about several reports issued by a committee created to monitor compliance
with the treaty. One report criticized Belarus for establishing a Mother's Day.
Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the Foreign
Relations Committee, who is recovering from heart surgery and was not present
today, accused the compliance committee in a letter of having a "radical agenda."
"There can be no doubt that Cedaw supporters are attempting to use this treaty
to advance a radical abortion agenda," Mr. Helms wrote.
Lester Munson, the spokesman for the Republican minority on the committee,
said Mr. Helms expected to return to the Senate in time to fight ratification
on the Senate floor, and he predicted a fierce lobbying battle. "We need to hear
from the grass roots to let their voices be heard on this matter," he said.
Some 170 countries have ratified the treaty, including most of Europe, Japan,
China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Given that Mr. Bush's signature would be required
for ratification, Senate Democrats said they would be willing to discuss adding
conditions to the treaty to make it acceptable to the Republicans.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company