Absent Without Leave


Last week I indulged in a daydream in which global women's health was part of the national dialogue. On Thursday, the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill came up for a vote on the Senate floor like a splash of cold water on my face.

The Senate usually passes a huge foreign ops bill without an amendment relating to UNFPA funding which allows the President to withhold our contribution to UNFPA. The Senate prefers to let the House do the dirty work of having an amendment – known as Kemp-Kasten – that permits the President to de-fund UNFPA.

Since we have a newly supportive majority in the Senate, we thought we would finally have a victory to celebrate. But the Senate did not allow this year's House Kemp-Kasten language to stand. Instead, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas – who is running for President – introduced an amendment to open up the same loophole that has allowed President Bush to de-fund UNFPA for five years in a row (actually six – we got that news on Friday). Senators Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, John McCain and Barack Obama – who are running for President – weren't on the floor when this vote was taken.

Brownback's amendment passed 48-45.

Since I work for a charity, a federal law prohibits me from telling you who votes how. But I think I'll risk telling you that four of the current crop of presidential candidates are supporters of UNFPA and could have changed the outcome of that vote.

Last week I imagined a debate in the not-too-distant future in which the moderator asked, "Senator, if elected, would you restore funding to UNFPA to assist in global efforts to promote women and reduce poverty?" Now I have to re-imagine my question: "Senator, what were you doing that you missed the vote to renew U.S. participation in the largest international effort to prevent maternal mortality, the spread of HIV and promote family planning and girls' access to contraception?"

I already know the answer. "I was out campaigning to ensure that I will be elected President because I can do much more good for the women of the world as President than I can as a Senator."

That sounds logical and rational and like something you could maybe let slide. But I'm weary of that excuse. For the first time in six years, UNFPA has a supportive majority in both houses of Congress and, given the support of the American people for this kind of work, there is no reason why that Senate vote on UNFPA should have been lost.

There's still hope for that national dialogue I dream of. The Foreign Operations bill still has to go through conference committee, even though it's been established that the President will veto the bill. The President's stated reason will likely be the inclusion of language that eliminates the Global Gag Rule. (UNFPA is not subject to the GGR.) I fear that the withholding of $40 million for UNFPA from a $20 billion appropriations bill will get about as much attention from the Presidential candidates as…well as much attention as it already has.

For the sake of women everywhere, let's hope our Presidential candidates prove me wrong.

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  • ellen-marshall

    The legislative history laid out in this piece is inaccurate. The Brownback amendment is the same as the House-passed language this year – and the same as what has been in law since 1985. The House and the Senate both included this same language in the Foreign Ops bills they passed last year as well.

    I have a different assessment of what happened in the Senate on a vote related to Kemp Kasten. The debate and vote in the Senate were not actually about UNFPA. More it was about coercion and forced sterilization being wrong – (a point with which I think we’d all agree) – rather than the role UNFPA has in reducing these actions around the world. The Brownback amendment includes no reference to UNFPA and it is easy – though frustrating and disappointing – to see how Senators feel comfortable voting for an amendment to not fund coercive practices, even though the Administration misuses the provision to de-fund UNFPA. Chastising Senators for opposing UNFPA when the debate and vote was about something else misses the point.

  • invalid-0

    Ellen,

    Although I can understand how the Brownback amendment (and its debate) could be read that way, this is one of those cases where the language of a Senate amendment and its actual effect are two different things. The purpose and effect of the Brownback amendment can only be to have opened a loophole through which President Bush could choose to de-fund UNFPA for a seventh consecutive year. That is why all of the active supporters of global women’s health and rights voted against it, and why only 48 socially conservative Senators voted for it. If it had REALLY been about forced abortions, then surely all 93 Present Senators would have voted Aye.

    Here’s how the Brownback amendment disingenuously claims to be about one thing but is really about another: The original Bill already contained language which allows the President to block funds to any organization that DIRECTLY supports forced abortions or sterilizations. This is a claim that it would be hard for even the Bush Administration to make against UNFPA. The Brownback amendment removes the word “directly” – thereby allowing President Bush to invoke the remaining language without showing any actual link between UNFPA and forced abortions (he can simply claim that because UNFPA has a program in China, and because China has supported forced abortions, therefore so does UNFPA – a clearly ridiculous assertion).

    This intentionally vague language was, in fact, in the House-authored versions of the past six years, but was modified by the new House majority this year to include more significant reporting requirements from the President (so he might actually have to provide a bit of evidence next year). The Senate language could have been even more forceful if not for the Brownback amendment – now we can only hope that the Conference Committee accepts what the House passed and not the post-Brownback Senate version.

  • brian-dixon

    It's terribly unfair to blame certain certain Senators and their absence for the outcome of this vote. First of all, there was an enormous amount of confusion on the Senate floor during this vote — and the other four amendments, including two others regarding family planning that were occuring at the exact same time. Second, the amendment came as a total surprise to everyone involved in the bill. So much so, that nobody even spoke in opposition to the amendment during the "debate." And finally, Sen. Clinton and her staff did an enormous amount of work during the day and into the night to try to find a way to ensure funding for UNFPA. To in any way cast blame on her is completely misguided. Ellen is completely right. The vote on this Brownback amdendment was not a vote on UNFPA. Yes, the effect of the amendment is a problem, but that doesn't mean that those who supported it were voting against UNFPA. I'm sure that many of them would be surprised to hear their votes characterized that way.