By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007
House Democrats narrowly passed a measure yesterday to provide contraceptives to overseas organizations that had been banned from receiving foreign aid because they provided or promoted abortion.
The amendment to an important antiabortion measure in the House foreign aid spending bill was a rebuke to President Bush, who has strictly opposed providing any assistance to groups that promote abortion. The Reagan-era measure, known as the Mexico City policy, was fiercely protected by Bush, who has issued two veto threats over the foreign aid bill should Democrats attempt to alter any of the antiabortion measures it contains.
The change to the measure may prove to be the House Democrats' only significant challenge to the antiabortion riders that have been added to a range of annual spending bills by abortion opponents over three decades.
The Mexico City measure is one of more than a dozen provisions banning Medicaid recipients, D.C. public health patients, prison inmates, government workers and even Peace Corps volunteers from getting a federally funded abortion. And Democrats have appeared cautious about taking on the bigger fight. That was evident even in the debate before yesterday's vote. The House passed the foreign aid bill 241 to 178.
Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), sponsor of the amendment and chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on state and foreign operations, sought to reassure Republicans that the contraceptives provision does not shake the core antiabortion portion of the policy. "What I did was put in a very narrow provision that will reduce abortion, unintended pregnancy and reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS," Lowey said. The provision drew the support of antiabortion Democrat Tim Ryan (Ohio), who argued on the floor that "the abortion debate in the 21st century needs to be about prevention."
Democratic leaders have said that as the spending cycle revs up, they plan to steer clear of additional challenges -- not only to abortion restrictions but also to other social issues that have defined the party but tend to divide Americans. They are protective of their fragile majority, rattled by repeated White House veto threats, and have their sights on the White House in 2008.
"I'm on the left. . . . But there's another team on the field, and you know what? They've got blockers and tacklers, too," said House Appropriations Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.). "We want to get things done."
That reality has guided Democrats' decision not to tinker with measures in the spending bills that many advocacy groups who are longtime allies thought they would target. And so: Abstinence-only sex education favored by Bush is slated for a $27 million increase. An amendment barring federal agents from sharing gun-tracing information with local police has so far stayed intact. A ban on the medical use of marijuana in the bill funding the D.C. government will remain.
The wider plan, Democratic leaders say, is to avoid ideological stands that turn off moderate voters to prevent Republicans from pasting them with a liberal label -- and speed passage of the bills, already behind schedule. While they keep faith with traditional priorities such as environmental cleanup and human rights, student loans and job training, Democrats have also beefed up homeland security and counternarcotics programs, border controls and local police grants. They have left most war-related spending alone and increased spending for veterans' health care.
The change in the Mexico City policy in the foreign aid bill was a carefully calibrated challenge, Democratic strategists said. By forcing floor debate on a policy that Democrats say has increased unwanted pregnancies and the number of abortions, the plan was to highlight its ineffectiveness and "the extremism" of opponents, one leadership aide said.
Lowey has chaired the House's abortion rights task force, but under her direction the foreign aid bill left nine of the 10 antiabortion riders untouched. When Republicans put forward an amendment yesterday to restore the policy in full, she sponsored a competing amendment clarifying that the changed language does nothing to end the foreign aid ban to pro-abortion groups. It was that amendment that passed.
"It takes time to reverse the damage done by the Republicans," Lowey said in an interview. "Rome wasn't built in a day."
NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan said, "Today's vote marks an important first step toward reversing a seven-year policy to block reproductive health services for women overseas."
The change was slammed by Republicans and antiabortion groups as an effort to gut the policy.
"This bill represents an unconscionable policy reversal that dramatically weakens current pro-life policies," said House Republican leader John A. Boehner (Ohio).
"It's clear the Democratic leadership wants to show it can make the appropriations trains run on time," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. "If they try to repeal these pro-life riders they'll blow up their own railroad bridges."
Beyond the $955 million in spending they direct, the must-pass annual bills traditionally carry a party's hopes and desires on social issues. As Democratic appropriators try to meet demands for spending and social change that piled up during 13 years in the minority, they must also avoid the unprecedented number of veto threats by this president.
Bush has threatened to veto any bills that exceed his spending requests, which is nearly all of them. In addition, he sent a letter to Democratic leaders in both houses warning, "I will veto any legislation that weakens current federal policies and laws on abortion, or that encourages the destruction of human life at any stage."