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WASHINGTON – Democrats on a key Senate panel Thursday voted to permanently reverse a policy in effect under recent Republican administrations that banned giving U.S. money to international groups that perform abortions or provide abortion information.
The 17-11 vote by the Appropriations Committee would give the existing policy – set by President Barack Obama by executive order days after taking office – the force of law. That means the next Republican president would not be able to put the ban back in place with the stroke of a pen as has been recent practice.
The policy in effect under President George W. Bush had banned U.S. taxpayer money, usually in the form of Agency for International Development funds, from going to international family planning groups that either offer abortions or provide information, counseling or referrals about abortion as a family planning method.
The ban was first put in place by President Ronald Reagan and has been known as the “Mexico City policy” for the city a U.S. delegation first announced it at a U.N. International Conference on Population.
Critics have long held that the rule unfairly discriminates against the world’s poor by denying U.S. aid to groups that may be involved in abortion but also work on other aspects of reproductive health care and HIV/AIDS, leading to the closure of free and low-cost rural clinics.
Outnumbered Republicans said the move by panel Democrats would effectively subsidize overseas abortions and would guarantee a floor imbroglio that could imperil passage of the bill, which otherwise enjoys bipartisan support.
“It is just going to create a really big fight,” said anti-abortion GOP Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, noting that because of Obama’s order, “this is the policy that’s in place today.”
Across the Capitol, the House began debate on a bipartisan companion foreign aid measure, though Democrats and Republicans offered competing interpretations of whether the $48.8 billion bill would provide a huge increase in foreign aid or a slight cut.
Democrats argued that the measure represents a $1.2 billion cut of more than 2 percent from current-year funding, though that calculation counts $13.4 billion from war funding bills toward their 2009 total. Republicans countered that the measure would provide a $12.2 billion, 33 percent increase over 2009 levels if money provided through war funding bills was left out of the calculation.
The truth is somewhere in-between, but at a minimum, the House measure provides a 4 percent increase over current funding. That’s because Democrats used the war funding bill passed in June to pre-fund $2.4 billion worth of next year’s aid to Israel, Egypt and other countries.
Earlier, the House passed a bill that would increase spending for food stamps by 14 percent, giving the program a boost as record numbers of people are using the food assistance.
Funding for the food stamp program makes up half of a $123.8 billion House measure for agriculture and nutrition programs for the budget year beginning Oct. 1. The bill passed 266-160.
The Department of Agriculture announced this week that 33.8 million people, or one in 9 Americans, were participating in the food stamp program as of April – more than any other time in its history. That’s up 1.2 million people from two months earlier and up 5.6 million from the same time last year. Funding is also up 10 percent for a popular program that gives additional food aid for children and pregnant women to help an additional 700,000 people.
The House and Senate are digging into the 12 annual appropriations bills for the agency operating budgets set by Congress each year. The House was expected to turn to a $48.8 billion measure funding foreign aid and State Department operations while the Senate continued debate on a $42.9 billion homeland security bill in hopes of passing it later on Thursday.
The Senate Appropriations Committee was also busy. In addition to the foreign aid bill, the committee approved funding for energy and water programs, and began debate on a measure for the Treasury Department and other agencies.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., says he will press for a plan to ease Bush administration rules requiring upfront payment from Cuba for imports of U.S. food. Dorgan says the Treasury Department is refusing to abide by an earlier attempt passed by Congress to effectively waive the Bush rule.
Associated Press – July 9, 2009
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