House panel approves State funding bill with anti-abortion language

The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved a 2013 State Department funding bill that includes controversial anti-abortion language.

The markup featured heated rhetoric between Democrats and Republicans, who sought to portray each other as hurting women, a crucial swing constituency in the fall elections.

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The State and foreign operations bill spends $40.1 billion in regular discretionary funding, or $2 billion below 2012, and $8.2 billion on the war on terror. In total, including war funding, the bill is $5 billion below fiscal 2012 funding levels.

Bilateral economic assistance would receive $1.1 billion less than last year, and war on terror funding would be cut by $3 billion. The bill contains tough new limitations on aid, including to the Palestinians. Because the spending bill violates last summer’s debt-ceiling deal, the White House has threatened to veto it.

On abortion, the bill cuts off all funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and reinstates the Mexico City policy, also known as the global gag rule. The rules says that all non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive U.S. funding must refrain from performing or promoting abortion services.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, offered an amendment to strip out the anti-abortion restrictions, but it was defeated 23-27. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) voted for the amendment. 

“These provisions will leave millions of women without access to critical and lifesaving services,” Lowey argued. She said the global gag rule has been shown to have led to a doubling in the number of abortions in Africa when it was imposed by the George W. Bush administration. Lowey asserted that the provisions would result in 1.4 million more abortions once women were barred from receiving family planning services.

She said her amendment would have simply reinstated current law, which provides $39 million to UNFPA but prevents money from being used in China in support of its one-child policy or forced abortions.

An amendment by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) would have restored funding for UNFPA to provide maternal healthcare and treat genital mutilation. She argued for her amendment by graphically describing the effects of pregnancy-related diseases on the body. That amendment was defeated by a tied vote of 24-24.

Another amendment, offered by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), would have restored UNFPA funding in those least-developed countries where the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is not present.

"If we don't pass this, women will die," Lowey said. "They will die having their 17th child."

The Lee amendment failed 22-27.

The markup grew even more heated when the committee considered and approved an amendment by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) that would cut off aid to any country that hosts Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is widely blamed for genocide in his country.

“Women are being abused and killed for the color of their skin,” Wolf shouted. “This is a moral issue,” he added. 

Wolf spoke forcefully on the issue and threatened to send gruesome videos of violence in Sudan to any committee member who voted down the amendment. 

“One lady she pinched her skin and said, 'I’m black. Get Bashir!' ” Wolf said.

Lowey, however, said that the Wolf amendment is problematic because some U.S. allies, including Egypt and Iraq, have hosted Bashir and would lose funding under the bill.

The committee also approved an amendment to prevent any funding being used to negotiate the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). 

Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) who is running for Sen. Jon Tester’s (D) seat, offered the amendment and argued the ATT could be used against civilian gun owners in the United States. Rehberg's amendment was approved 30-20.

The committee also adopted an amendment that requires the secretary of State to report on whether Nigeria's Boko Haram meets the criteria for designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The Islamist group is suspected of terror attacks in the country.

The contentious fight over women's issues in the State Department funding bill mirrors recent debates on the Violence Against Women Act. The House and Senate battled this week over renewing the measure, with Democrats claiming that a House GOP version includes insufficient protections for victims of domestic violence who are gay, lesbian or Native American.