Beliefnet

WASHINGTON, Oct. 25 (AP)--Congress appears ready to approve lifting the ban on U.S. aid for groups performing abortions overseas, a move that lawmakers on both sides of the issue say is a pre-election victory for abortion-rights advocates.

The abortion provision was included in a $14.9 billion foreign aid bill that the House and Senate planned to vote on Wednesday and that President Clinton was expected to sign into law. The measure also contained aid to help some of the world's poorest countries reduce their international debt, and assistance for Serbia in the wake of the overthrow of President Slobodan Milosevic.

Agreement on the measure by House-Senate bargainers on Tuesday left just two of the 13 annual spending bills for the new fiscal year still mired by disputes over school spending, immigration policy and other issues. Republican leaders hope Congress will complete all remaining measures by week's end and adjourn for the year--four weeks after the Oct. 1 start of fiscal 2001, and less than two weeks from Election Day.

In the perennially bitter fight over U.S. abortion policy overseas, the two sides agreed to end a ban enacted last year on giving taxpayer dollars to organizations using private funds for abortions overseas or advocating liberalized abortion laws there. President Reagan first imposed the restriction in 1984, only to see Clinton erase it in 1993.

Negotiators also agreed to provide $425 million to overseas family planning programs, up from last year's $385 million and the first increase since Republicans took control of Congress in 1995.

``This was a great victory for women, a great victory for democracy,'' said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., an abortion-rights advocate.

But the provision also gives anti-abortion groups a win, forbidding the expenditure of any of the money until Feb. 15. That would in effect leave a decision on spending the money to either Republican Gov. George W. Bush or Democratic Vice President Al Gore, the two presidential contenders.

Even so, anti-abortion leader Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., conceded the language was at least a temporary defeat that would probably become law because of the GOP's rush to finish Congress' work without sparking controversy.

``We're going to try to make the best of it,'' he said, adding, ``The real outcome will be decided on November 7,'' which is Election Day.

Clinton signed the prohibition into law last year as the price for winning $926 million to pay U.S. dues owed to the United Nations. Though he waived enforcement of the ban, as permitted by law, his signature enraged many abortion-rights lawmakers and advocacy groups, and the president promised he would not renew the prohibition again.

The foreign aid bill also contains $435 million to help relieve the more than $100 billion in international debt owed by about three dozen poor countries. That initiative is backed by Clinton, many conservatives and others from Pope John Paul II to the rock star Bono.

And it would provide up to $100 million in aid for Serbia. After next March 31, the money would stop unless officials there cooperate with efforts to prosecute war criminals.

The measure also formally raises this year's discretionary spending - covering everything but automatic benefits like Social Security--to $637 billion, or about one-third of the $1.8 trillion federal budget.

That would be nearly $40 billion more than the GOP-written budget promised last spring, $13 billion more than Clinton requested and $50 billion more than was spent in fiscal 2000 - all of which makes many conservatives cringe.

With the budget fight in the fourth week of the fiscal year, Clinton was hoping to boost pressure on Congress by refusing to sign any more stopgap bills keeping government agencies open more than a day at a time.

That would give Clinton a daily, campaign-season opportunity to accuse the GOP-controlled Congress of not finishing its must-pass budget business or attending to the nation's education needs. GOP leaders say they will send Clinton daylong extensions until the work is finished.

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