Amid partisan conflict in Congress, dozens of lawmakers from both parties -- including staunch liberals and conservatives -- have united behind a bill that supporters say addresses a heart-rending issue beyond politics: the millions of foreign children languishing in orphanages or otherwise at risk because they have no immediate family.
The bill would encourage more adoptions of foreign orphans, which have declined steadily in recent years, and reflects impatience with current policies overseen by the State Department.
"Every child needs and deserves to grow up in a family," says the bill's chief advocate, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. "While our foreign policy has done much to keep children alive and healthy, it has not prioritized this basic human right."
Titled the Children in Families First Act, the measure has been introduced in slightly different forms in both the Senate and House. Its co-sponsors range from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a hero of the Democratic left, to Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., a favorite of tea party conservatives.
"It's not a slam dunk, but it is very possible," Landrieu said of the bill's chances. "We need voices from all parts of the political spectrum to make a change that many of us think is extremely important."
As of mid-December, the twin measures had 32 co-sponsors in the House and 17 in the Senate.
Landrieu, mother of two adopted children, hopes to keep building support for the bill with the goal of clearing committees in both chambers by spring.
However, some House Republicans are skeptical about creating more bureaucracy, and there is sentiment in the Obama administration that some key provisions of the bill are not needed.
"I think we've been pretty successful recently," said Susan Jacobs, the State Department's special adviser on children's issues. "We are proud of the work that we do to protect everyone involved in the adoption process -- the birth families, the adopting families and of course the children."
Landrieu thinks differently, contending the government has been remiss in failing to establish an office that focuses on international child welfare. The bill would create a new bureau in the State Department assigned to work with non-governmental organizations and foreign countries to minimize the number of children without families -- through family preservation and reunification, kinship care, and domestic and international adoption.
Under the legislation, the processing of international adoption cases would be assigned to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, while the U.S. Agency for International Development would become home to a center dedicated to implementing a 2012 plan to assist children in adversity.
There's no firm global count of children in orphanages, but they number in the millions. In Russia -- which has banned adoptions by Americans -- there are more than 650,000 children not in parental custody. In Kyrgyzstan -- where foreign adoptions were disrupted for years due to corruption and political problems -- orphanages are often ill-equipped, with limited specialized care for severely disabled children. In Haiti, where recovery from the 2010 earthquake has been slow, inspectors recently checked more than 700 orphanages, and said only 36 percent met minimum standards.
Much of the impetus for Landrieu's bill stems from shifting views about the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption. That treaty establishes ethical standards for international adoptions, which it says are an acceptable option after efforts have been made to have a child adopted in his or her home country.
The U.S. entered into the agreement in 2008 with strong support from Landrieu and other adoption advocates who hoped it would curtail fraud and corruption, and then lead to a boom in legitimate adoptions.
Instead, the decrease in foreign adoption by Americans -- which started in 2005 -- has continued. There were 8,668 such adoptions in 2012, down from 22,991 in 2004.
"When I helped to pass this treaty, it was everyone's hope that the number would go up -- doubled, tripled, quadrupled," Landrieu said. "Instead it's down by 60 percent. That's the best evidence I have that what State Department has in place isn't working."
There are multiple reasons for the decline -- including increases in domestic adoptions in China and South Korea, and suspensions imposed on several countries due to concerns about fraud and trafficking.
However, many supporters of Landrieu's bill believe the Hague convention has been applied too punitively, and that the State Department has been overcautious rather than working creatively to halt the decline. Several prominent supporters wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry on Dec. 18 asking that he investigate the matter.
The letter cites Cambodia as an example. The U.S. and other Western countries have banned adoptions from there since 2001 out of concern that the adoption business was rife with bribery and child-trafficking. Cambodia, which imposed its own ban in 2009, now says it has made needed reforms and is ready to resume international adoptions, but the State Department says the U.S. ban will remain in place because of continuing concerns about Cambodia's child-welfare system.
Since 2001, the letter said, "tens of thousands of children in Cambodia have had no chance at a permanent family." Many grow up or even die in institutional care, it said, while others end up on the streets or trafficked into the sex trade.