In a victory for President Clinton over anti-abortion forces, the Senate voted Tuesday to speed up the release of $385 million for international family planning without setting new abortion restrictions on the program.
The measure authorizing release of the funds, already passed by the House and certain to be signed by Clinton, was bitterly fought by anti-abortion advocates who contended that the money will subsidize organizations abroad that promote abortion.
The Senate vote was 53-46, with 11 Republicans joining 42 Democrats in supporting Clinton’s request to release the money March 1. That will end a moratorium on spending family planning money that was supposed to last until July 1.
The issue provoked the first abortion-related debate in the Senate since the 1996 elections, when anti-abortion forces gained ground in the chamber.
But Tuesday’s vote made clear that, despite lobbying pressure to the contrary, some abortion foes are willing to accept the argument that supporting family planning aid is not the moral equivalent of supporting abortion.
“A majority of senators recognize the value of family planning - that it reduces abortion,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, lead GOP sponsor of the family planning measure.
Although the Clinton administration won the vote by a comfortable margin, the outcome had been uncertain enough that Vice President Al Gore was in the Capitol in case he was needed to cast a tie-breaking vote.
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry hailed the vote, saying: “This is a victory for women, children and families all over the world, one which would not have been accomplished without bipartisan support.”
The vote does not, however, end congressional debate over the issue.
“It is obvious that this battle will be renewed each year … until the pro-life position prevails,” said Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark.
At issue was funding for a U.S. foreign aid program aimed at helping prevent unplanned pregnancies and other population control initiatives. Current law prohibits the use of U.S. aid for directly funding abortions, but nothing prevents recipients from using other sources of money for that purpose.
Tuesday’s vote was a legacy of last year’s budget battle, when abortion foes tried to block all funding to international groups that provide or promote abortion. As a compromise, Congress voted to cut the program’s budget by 35 percent and block any spending until July 1.
The agreement also allowed for a February vote to release the money four months earlier, provided Clinton issued a finding that a further delay would have a negative effect, which he did on Jan. 31.
Abortion opponents still want the Senate to vote on a separate measure, already approved by the House, that would prohibit U.S. family planning aid from going to international organizations that promote or provide abortions. But a lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee conceded that a Senate vote on that measure is “unlikely” soon.
In the absence of such restrictions, many abortion opponents were unwilling to support early release of the family planning money.