WASHINGTON — The House voted Wednesday to preserve President Bush’s policy prohibiting $425 million in U.S. aid for global population assistance from going to groups that advocate abortion rights.
The provision, which passed 218-210, was attached to an $8.2 billion State Department reauthorization bill, approved 352-73 late Wednesday evening. Thirty-two Democrats joined Republican supporters in passing the abortion provision.
The House also passed a controversial amendment sponsored by Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos of California that would withhold about $625,000 in aid to Lebanon until that country secures its borders near Israel. The measure, which passed 216-210, also would direct the president to develop a plan for terminating millions of dollars in other aid if the Lebanese do not comply within six months.
The abortion provision prompted the most intense debate on the bill.
Bush signaled his support for abortion foes early on, implementing the aid ban by executive order during his first week in office. But Democrats on the House International Relations Committee included a provision overturning the president’s order in the committee’s version of the bill. Wednesday’s amendment removed that from the bill.
The National Organization for Women said women in the United States and around the world “stand to lose access to critical health services at the hands of this Congress and this president.” Democrats attacked the policy as detrimental to international family planning efforts and dubbed it a “global gag rule” that assaulted the free speech rights of organizations abroad. Republicans argued that abortion does not belong in the family planning discussion.
“I think it is important we not be hypocrites in dealing with this legislation,” said Lantos, who also serves as the ranking Democrat on the International Relations Committee. “It is not enough to talk about human rights and democracy. It is important we practice what we preach.”
Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri said the issue was simple. “Do we empower women and families across the globe with the ability to plan for the number of children they will have? Or do we pull the rug out from under these important efforts?”
Democrats pointed out that a 1973 federal law already prevented foreign organizations from using U.S. taxpayer money to pay for abortions. But GOP leaders accused foreign organizations of shifting money around to fund abortion efforts.
“Nobody is being gagged,” said Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and chairman of the International Relations Committee. “If you want to talk about abortions, talk away. But not on our dime.”
“Abortion is not family planning,” said Hyde, a longtime leader of anti-abortion efforts in the House. “Family planning is helping you get pregnant or keeping you from getting pregnant. It is not killing an unborn child after you become pregnant.”
President Bush had threatened a veto if lawmakers overturned his policy. Spokesman Ari Fleischer indicated Wednesday that the president could support the overall bill now that the abortion issue is resolved. “Unless there’s something else in there, the president will be supportive,” Fleischer said.
Wednesday’s action drew dozens of lawmakers to the floor for an emotional debate. At one point, leaders extended the debate to accommodate the numerous members who wanted to speak.
It was just the latest effort by House Republicans, buoyed by White House support, to push through abortion-related legislation. Last month, the House voted to make it illegal to harm a fetus while committing a crime against a pregnant woman.
The evenly divided Senate has yet to take up any of the abortion measures.
Overall, the bill authorizes dozens of State Department programs for the 2002 and 2003 fiscal years.
In the Lebanese aid amendment, supporters said securing the border was essential to securing Middle East peace. They expressed worries about attacks on Israel by the guerrilla group Hezbollah, which operates out of Lebanon but is supported by Syria. Just Monday, the terrorist group fired two anti-tank missiles at an Israeli army outpost.
“If we are to treat Lebanon as a sovereign nation it must fulfill its obligations,” said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va.
Still, opponents said the measure unfairly penalized the Lebanese.
“It drives the Lebanese into the arms of the extremists and the terrorists,” said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. “Is that what we want?”
Said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., “This amendment doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t send the signal you want it to send.”
Last week, the House voted to withhold $244 million in overdue payments to the United Nations until the United States is restored to the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Lawmakers have expressed outrage that the United States was ejected from the seat it has held since the panel’s creation in 1947.
The State Department bill, H.R. 1646, can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov