WASHINGTON – The Senate voted Thursday to lift restrictions on family planning aid to overseas health organizations that perform abortions or promote the procedure as a method of family planning.
The vote came as the Senate passed by a 81-12 vote a $34 billion measure funding foreign aid and U.S. diplomacy. Companion legislation passed the House in June, and the measure now heads to House-Senate negotiations over a final version.
On the family planning vote, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., won a 53-41 tally reversing U.S. policy regarding aid to pro-abortion groups. But Boxer's move has dim prospects of becoming law. President Bush is a passionate advocate of the current policy and has promised to veto any attempt to undermine it.
Such veto threats also apply to the underlying bill covering foreign aid and the State Department budget. It would ease the restrictions to permit family planning groups cut off from U.S. aid to accept U.S.-donated contraceptives.
Boxer and a familiar adversary, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., dominated the brief but emotional abortion debate.
Boxer complained that overseas family planning groups are blocked from counseling women about abortion or from participating in debates about abortion policy in their own countries if they want to hold onto their U.S. aid.
"The policy literally gags foreign organizations that receive (U.S.) family planning funds," Boxer said.
Brownback said U.S. taxpayers should not be required to subsidize organizations involved in abortions. He is mounting a long-shot bid for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination and is focusing his attention of the party's base of social conservatives.
"It's a gut-check issue about where you stand on life ... where you stand on whether on not we should be using taxpayer funds for abortion," Brownback said.
The vote to overturn the so-called Mexico City policy -- named after the population conference where President Reagan announced it -- was expected. Boxer had prevailed on a 52-46 vote two years ago and her position was strengthened by the results of last fall's elections that gave Democrats control of the Senate.
But by a 48-45 vote, Brownback narrowly won a bid aimed at continuing Bush administration policy barring U.S. contributions to the U.N. Population Fund because of aid provided to China, whose population-control program relies on coerced abortions. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., had sought to permit U.S. contributions, arguing that the family planning funds could prevent abortions in China.
The overall bill would cut Bush's chief foreign aid program to help emerging democracies. It also would funnel more money to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis around the world.
Bush requested $3 billion for the Millennium Challenge Corp., a program that assists countries in putting in place economic and political reforms. That total would fall to $1.2 billion under the Senate bill. The administration has been slow to spend earlier money for the program.
The spending measure would boost Bush's $4.2 billion request for the global HIV/AIDS account by $940 million. Lawmakers are adding $590 million to the administration's request for a global fund to combat AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria -- enough money to almost triple it.
Altogether, however, the Senate would cut Bush's request for foreign aid and the State Department budget by about $700 million, transferring money to domestic accounts favored on Capitol Hill.
The bill also provides military aid to familiar allies in the Middle East. Israel would receive $2.4 billion, while Egypt receives $1.3 billion. Afghanistan would receive about $1.1 billion for humanitarian assistance and reconstruction aid.
But the Senate joined the House in denying the administration's $456 million request for aid to Iraq; $2.8 billion in Iraq reconstruction aid provided in May has yet to be spent.
Earlier Thursday, the Senate brushed aside administration protests and passed legislation containing big budget increases for medical care for veterans.
The Senate approved the Veterans Affairs Department's budget bill by a 92-1 vote. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., was the lone vote against it.
The overwhelming margin illustrated why the White House backed away from a veto threat issued in May and has signaled Bush would sign the bill, even though it breaks his budget by $4 billion.
That bill also provides huge budget increases for construction at military bases.
The bill rewards the VA with an almost 10 percent budget increase of $3.2 billion for its health care accounts next year -- on top of $1.3 billion added for health care to the Iraq funding bill passed in May.