WASHINGTON – The House voted Wednesday to preserve President Bush's policy of banning aid to foreign organizations that discuss or advocate abortion rights abroad.
The provision, which passed 218-210, was attached to an $8.2 billion State Department reauthorization bill still being debated on the House floor. Thirty-two Democrats joined Republicans in approving the abortion-aid ban; 33 Republicans voted against it.
Democrats attacked the policy as detrimental to global family-planning efforts.
"The issue here," said Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, "is do we empower women and families across the globe with the ability to plan for the number of children they will have? Or do we pull the rug out from under these important efforts?"
Democrats pointed out that since 1973 federal law has prevented foreign organizations from using U.S. taxpayer money to pay for abortions. But GOP leaders accused foreign organizations of shifting money around to fund abortion efforts.
"We all know money is fungible. You can move it around," said Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla.
Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the International Relations Committee and a longtime leader in anti-abortion efforts, said giving money to organizations that provide abortion sends a bad message. "When the very same organization offers U.S. family planning with one hand and abortion with the other, the message is the United States and its partners are perfectly comfortable with abortion," he said.
The fight over the provision reignited the intense emotions associated with the abortion debate. At one point, leaders extended the debate to accommodate the countless number of members who wanted to speak.
This was only the latest effort by Republicans to push through abortion-related legislation now that they have a supporter in the White House. Just last month, the House voted to make it illegal to harm a fetus while committing a crime against a pregnant woman.
The evenly divided Senate has yet to take up any of the abortion measures.
Bush signaled his support for abortion foes early on, implementing the aid ban by executive order during his first week in office.
Democrats on the House International Relations Committee, with the help of three Republicans, voted 26-22 earlier this month to include a provision in the State Department bill overturning the president's order. The Republican amendment approved Wednesday removed the repeal from the bill.
Many foreign organizations have worried that they may lose money needed to provide information on birth control and prenatal care as well as services such as Pap smears and HIV screening.
Republicans insist the policy takes no money from the $425 million the administration requested for global population assistance but instead directs that it go only to organizations that do not foster abortions.
"The Bush administration is clearly out of step when it attempts to impose a narrow political debate on other countries," said Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
The abortion debate is just one component of a multibillion-dollar bill that authorizes dozens of State Department programs for the 2002 and 2003 fiscal years.
Another major provision up for debate Wednesday would withhold about $625,000 in aid to Lebanon until that country secures its borders near Israel. U.S. officials have expressed worries about attacks on Israel by the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah.
The measure, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos of California, also would direct the president to develop a plan for terminating millions of dollars in other aid if the Lebanese do not comply within six months.
Last week, the House voted to withhold $244 million in overdue payments to the United Nations until the United States is restored to the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Lawmakers have expressed outrage that the United States was ejected from the seat it has held since the panel's creation in 1947.