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World: Social Controversy Holds Up US Foreign Aid

  • Kevin Foley

Washington, 29 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives hope a compromise reached last week with anti-abortion activists in the House will enable them to bring the $12.3 billion U.S. foreign aid bill to the floor for a vote before Congress adjourns on Friday for its summer recess.

The issue that has delayed House action on the foreign aid bill has nothing much to do with economic assistance for emerging democracies. The problem arose because of a demand by Congressman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey) for a ban on the granting of U.S. foreign aid funds to private groups which use their own money to perform or promote abortions abroad.

Smith is the co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe and is known throughout Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union as a champion of human rights. However, he is also an unbending foe of abortion, and believes it is wrong for the U.S. to indirectly subsidize the procedure.

Since 1973, U.S. law has prohibited direct funding for abortions in foreign countries. Smith, however, contends that the U.S. continues to indirectly subsidize abortions by giving grants to such organizations as International Planned Parenthood of London. Smith says organizations such as Planned Parenthood use their own funds to promote abortions or perform them.

He plans to submit an amendment to the House version of the foreign aid bill that will include the anti-abortion provision, prompting a warning from the White House that President Bill Clinton would likely veto the foreign aid bill if it reached his desk with the anti-abortion language.

The Clinton Administration says the anti-abortion provision would prevent U.S. assistance to groups that provide urgent family planning programs in developing countries and that a ban on U.S. aid would lead to more abortions, not less.

House leaders say the fight may be avoided, however. They say that Smith will propose his amendment. But Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-California) will also submit an amendment that would ban U.S. funds for groups which promote abortion as a family planning method. Congressional leaders are hoping House members will choose the Pelosi amendment over the Smith proposal.

The foreign aid measure has already been approved by the Senate. The Senate measure includes $485 million in economic assistance for Eastern and Central Europe -- including the Baltic states -- and $800 million for the states of the former Soviet Union.

The version of the foreign aid bill before the House would appropriate $470 million for Central and Eastern Europe and $625 million for the former Soviet states. The differences between the House and Senate bills will be worked out in a committee of House and Senate members, after the House acts on its spending legislation.

The Congress must approve a total of 13 separate pieces of spending legislation to finance the U.S. Government for the financial year that begins next October First. Each chamber of the legislature drafts its own budget legislation after the President submits his spending requests. The House and Senate first debate their own measures, then work out the differences and agree on one measure which is sent back to each chamber for a final vote. The legislation then goes to the President for enactment.

Congressman Smith's anti-abortion sentiment has also stalled action on the legislation that would authorize the programs of the U.S. State Department for another two years. His amendment was attached to the House version of the State Department bill. The Senate had passed its own version of the measure without any reference to abortion, and now the differences between the bills must be worked out. In the U.S. legislative system, government departments are funded annually by the Congress. However, every two years, the Congress must grant authorization for continuation of a cabinet department's or government agency's operations and programs.

The committee of House and Senate members is to meet this week to try and work out the differences in the State Department measure. Controversial amendments are frequently stricken from legislation during these House-Senate conference meetings, but Smith is insisting that his anti-abortion proposal be retained.

U.S. Senate leaders are especially anxious to finish work on the State Department bill. This year's authorization measure includes a provision that will reorganize the State Department by eliminating the independent Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the Agency for International Development and assigning their functions to the State Department. It also includes provides $819 million to pay U.S. debts to the United Nations in exchange for management reforms at the UN.