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World: U.S. Foreign Aid Remains Unfinished Business

  • Kevin Foley

Washington, 5 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - The U.S. Congress left Washington last weekend for its summer recess without completing work on foreign aid spending and legislation re-authorizing the operations of the U.S. State Department.

Congress will not reconvene until the first week of September, leaving legislators just about four weeks to finish the foreign aid budget before the financial year ends on September 30.

Progress on the foreign aid bill and the State Department measure has been delayed by the issue of U.S. Government financial support for abortion and the ideological conflict between Republicans, who control the majority in both the 100-member Senate and the 435-member House of Representatives, and Democrats.

Abortion is a legal medical procedure in the United States. Most Republicans, however, are opposed to abortion and believe it should be banned in all but the most extreme emergencies. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, generally believes that abortion is an individual decision that the Federal Government should not be involved in.

A 25-year-old law prohibits the U.S. from directly subsidizing abortions in foreign countries. In 1984, former President Ronald Reagan -- a Republican -- used his executive power to impose a ban on the granting of U.S. funds to any foreign organization that advocated or performed abortions, even if the foreign organization used its own money for that purpose. Former President George Bush, also a Republican, continued that policy. However, President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, rescinded the executive order shortly after beginning his first term in 1993.

Congressman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey) wants the Reagan policy to be made a law by the Congress. He believes he has enough support from his fellow Republicans to win. Smith plans to amend the foreign aid spending bill to include the anti-abortion language, even though Clinton has promised to veto the spending bill if it is passed with the anti-abortion provision.

At stake is the $12.3 million foreign aid budget, which includes economic assistance for Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Smith has also attached his amendment to legislation that renews the spending authority for the State Department for another two years. Executive agencies must go through this re-authorization process every two years. The measure approving renewal had passed the Senate and the House and a joint committee from the two chambers tried last week to work out the differences so a final bill could be presented and voted on. Smith rejected efforts to withdraw his amendment and threated to bring the issue to the House floor if his amendment was not included in the State Department legislation.

The president has vowed to veto the State Department legislation as well.

Another foreign topic awaiting the return of Congress is U.S. policy in the Caucasus, specifically, whether to repeal a Congressional ban on economic aid to Azerbaijan because of its economic blockade of Armenia.

The subject received a lot of attention last week during the official working visit of Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev. In public speeches and private meetings with leading members of the House and Senate, Aliyev sought to convince legislators that the ban is unjust and that Azerbaijan is making political and economic reforms, and wants a settlement with Armenia in the dispute over the predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan.

The Clinton Administration has said repeatedly that it wants stronger ties with Azerbaijan, and that the Congressional aid ban is an impediment to improved relations, as well as an infringement on the President's foreign policy-making authority.

Congress, however, has the final say over what nations receive U.S. aid and how much they will obtain. So far, the politically powerful Armenian American lobby has helped persuade Congress to keep the ban in force.

Congressman Peter King (R-New York) is challenging the ban. He has introduced legislation in the House to lift the ban, and it has been referred to the Committee on International Relations, where it is likely to get sympathetic treatment from Chairman Benjamin Gilman (R-New York).

King says U.S. interests in the Caucasus "are being ill-served," by the ban.

"In addition to creating a bulwark against Iran's fundamentalist regime, the United States must take an even-handed approach to resolving the on-going dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh," King says. "In order to do so effectively we must maintain open lines of communication and full engagement with all parties to the conflict."