The House on Thursday decided to release $385 million in international family planning funds in the first abortion-related vote of the new Congress, handing abortion foes a rare legislative defeat.
“It’s a setback for the pro-life movement,” Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., conceded. “But I don’t think it’s a devastating blow.”
Indeed, Hyde and other anti-abortion lawmakers won at least a symbolic victory just hours later as the House approved separate legislation to bar U.S. family planning funds to groups that perform or promote abortions. The bill, however, faces an uncertain future in the Senate - and is - strongly opposed by the Clinton administration.
Both measures now go to the Senate, which is expected to act before the end of this month.
The House vote to release the funds was 220-209, with many normally anti-abortion members backing the measure, swayed by the argument that family planning can reduce unwanted pregnancies - and thus abortions.
Thursday’s action was a legacy of last year’s bitter budget battle, when conservatives tried to block all funding to international groups that encourage family planning. As a compromise was worked out to get the budget passed, Congress voted to reduce the program by 35 percent and block any spending until July 1 of this year.
That agreement also provided for a vote this month to reconsider the matter and perhaps allow money to be released by March 1 - provided that President Clinton issued a finding that a further delay would have a negative effect on programs, which he did on Jan. 31.
It was that finding, in the form of a “privileged resolution,” that was approved by the House. While Thursday’s vote does not restore any of the funds Congress cut out of the program last year, it does mean that international family planning groups could get the money as soon as four months earlier than allowed by the previous schedule.
The second measure approved by the House (on a 231-194 vote) was introduced by Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J. Even if passed by the Senate, it faces a near-certain presidential veto.
If neither measure wins Senate approval, the funds will not be released until July 1.
Among Republicans voting to release the funds were Rep. Susan Molinari of New York, who said that any further delay would result in more abortions.
“By giving women the access to health services they so desperately need during their childbearing years we will help prevent thousands of maternal deaths,” Molinari said.
International funding for family planning is “an absolutely essential need in this world,” said Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Calif.
But Rep. Steven J. Chabot, R-Ohio, spoke for many opponents of family planning funding when he called the move “a worldwide crusade” by the Clinton administration to promote abortions. “This is not altruism,” added Rep. Fay Dickey, R-Ark., “this is genocide.”
Among those who voted against his own record on the topic was Rep. Tony P. Hall, D-Ohio, normally an abortion foe. The delay in funding, Hall said on the House floor just before the vote, has “gone too far,” adding that the absence of family planning leads to “unintended pregnancies and to more, rather than fewer, abortions.”
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