Who killed the bill to prevent forced child marriages

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, incoming chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, vowed to cut the State Department budget.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, incoming chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, vowed to cut the State Department budget. (Mandel Ngan)
Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 6:22 PM

Incoming House Foreign Affairs chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) defeated a bill Dec. 16 that would have committed the United States to combating forced child marriages abroad. The episode - in which she invoked concerns about the legislation's cost and that funds could be used to promote abortion - highlights the tough road that the Obama administration will face in advancing its women's rights and foreign aid agenda during the next congressional session.

Nongovernmental organizations, women's rights advocates and lawmakers from both parties spent years developing and lobbying for the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2010, which the House failed to pass in a vote Thursday. The bill failed even though 241 representatives voted for it and only 166 voted against, because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) brought it up under "suspension of the rules." This procedure has the advantage of not allowing any amendments or changes to the bill, but carries the disadvantage of requiring two-thirds of the votes for passage.

Even still, supporters in both parties fully expected the bill to garner the 290 votes needed - right up until the bill failed. After all, it passed the Senate unanimously Dec. 1 with the co-sponsorship of several Republicans.

So what happened? Ros-Lehtinen first argued that the bill was simply unaffordable. In a Dec. 16 "Dear Colleague" letter, she objected to the cost of the bill, which would be $108 million over five years, and criticized it for not providing an accounting of how much the United States was already spending on this effort. Ros-Lehtinen introduced her own version of the bill, which she said would cost only $1 million. But in a fact sheet, organizations supporting the original legislation said that Ros-Lehtinen's bill removed the implementation procedures that gave the legislation teeth.

Regardless, the supporters still thought the bill would pass because House Republican leadership had not come out against it. But about an hour before the vote, every Republican House office received a message on the bill from GOP leadership, known as a Whip Alert, saying that leadership would vote "no" on the bill and encouraging all Republicans do the same. The last line on the alert particularly shocked the bill's supporters.

"There are also concerns that funding will be directed to NGOs that promote and perform abortion and efforts to combat child marriage could be usurped as a way to overturn pro-life laws," the alert read.

The bill doesn't contain any funding for abortion activities and federal funding for abortion activities is already prohibited by what's known as the Helms Amendment, which has been federal statute since 1973.

Invoking the abortion issue sent the bill's supporters reeling. Republican anti-abortion senators had carefully reviewed the legislation and concluded it would not have an impact on the abortion issue.

Rep. Stephen LaTourrette (R-Ohio) called out the Republican leadership for invoking the abortion issue to defeat the forced child marriage act in a floor speech Friday morning.

"All of a sudden there was a fiscal argument," LaTourette said. "When that didn't work, people had to add an abortion element to it. This is a partisan place. I'm a Republican. I'm glad we beat their butt in the election, but there comes a time when enough is enough."

Security move

The White House announced that Brooke Anderson will become the new chief of staff of the National Security Council, replacing Denis McDonough, who was promoted to Deputy National Security Advisor last month.

Anderson currently serves as Alternate Representative for Special Political Affairs at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, where she holds the rank of ambassador.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company