Foreign aid rider tangles up final spending talks

The White House is concerned the rider could cut out faith-based aid groups from USAID contracts

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., listens during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday. Shaheen says her amendment, creating concerns for the White House in year-end spending talks, has nothing to do with funding abortions. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., listens during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday. Shaheen says her amendment, creating concerns for the White House in year-end spending talks, has nothing to do with funding abortions. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 6, 2019 at 6:08pm

Urged on by anti-abortion activists and religious groups, the White House is raising concerns in year-end spending talks about language secured by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., in the Senate’s State-Foreign Operations bill they fear could cut out faith-based aid groups from U.S. Agency for International Development contracts.

Shaheen argues the provision in the bill would simply require USAID contractors to adhere to current law, which stipulates they can’t deny services to individuals based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, marital status, political affiliation or other factors.

[Lowey: Appropriations deal could be struck this weekend]

The Shaheen amendment would require USAID to notify the committee of instances where contractors receiving family planning, reproductive health or global HIV/AIDS program funds run afoul of an Obama-era regulation prohibiting discrimination against potential aid recipients. It would also require the agency to develop a mechanism for submitting complaints about possible violations of the nondiscrimination rule.

The amendment would require the Government Accountability Office to report, within six months of enactment, on the process by which USAID selected contract awardees for reproductive health and family planning activities during the past three fiscal years.

A Shaheen aide explained that the amendment is intended to inform lawmakers of episodes where, for example, women who aren’t married are turned away from overseas health clinics that receive U.S. government aid. That would be an instance of discrimination that the 2016 Obama rulemaking, which was essentially a restatement of current law enshrined in the Foreign Assistance Act, was intended to prevent.

The problem with the Shaheen language in the bill ultimately adopted by the committee, opponents say, is that it could chill nascent efforts by the Trump administration to steer limited foreign assistance funds to more religious-affiliated organizations.

In May, USAID launched a new initiative designed to broaden and diversify the types of groups that receive funding, including for reproductive health care and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. During a forum in October, USAID Administrator Mark Green — a former GOP House lawmaker from Wisconsin — said he could not “imagine an effective development agency that doesn’t partner with the community of faith.”

Anti-abortion groups claimed in a Nov. 21 letter to President Donald Trump that Shaheen’s provisions are “intended to effectively ‘name and shame’ faith or community-based partners, particularly pro-life and pro-family partners” in foreign aid programs. “The resulting blacklist is designed to drive qualified faith-based providers away from providing foreign assistance.” The letter was signed by 18 organizations including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Susan B. Anthony List, Family Research Council and more.

In an Oct. 23 letter to Senate appropriators, Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Russell Vought wrote that the provision “could lead to increased preference to contract with domestic groups that help fund abortion services internationally, as reporting these criteria may pressure USAID to favor these already established implementers.” He added that the reporting mechanism for possible violations “could also be used as a vehicle to harass pro-life recipients.”

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‘Conflating the issue’

Shaheen said critics misunderstand the intent and the practical impact of her amendment.

The nondiscrimination language simply “reiterates what is already law, which is any funds distributed around family planning should be done in accordance with the law,” she said Thursday. “Sadly, people seem to be conflating the issue of abortion and family planning and access to contraceptives. And they are two very different issues.”

A Shaheen aide said that certain right-wing organizations have been putting out disinformation about what the amendment would actually do. The amendment does not target any faith-based organizations, the staffer said.

Ironically, the fight has cropped up in the final bargaining over fiscal 2020 spending bills despite what GOP appropriators in September agreed to specifically to avoid an even bigger fight — over whether the administration can prevent U.S. funding for groups that carry out or even discuss abortions.

The Shaheen amendment wouldn’t do anything to change funding restrictions around abortion services: In fact, Shaheen specifically backed off offering an amendment to block the Trump administration’s expanded “Mexico City policy” — critics call it a “global gag rule” — which bars any U.S. aid to groups that perform or promote abortions.

Even though Shaheen had the votes to adopt her Mexico City amendment, she agreed not to push it in exchange for the nondiscrimination provisions that were worked out with panel Republicans.

Nonetheless, the matter has become a top-tier concern for Republicans in the final spending bill negotiations. Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said Thursday the provision’s inclusion in any final State-Foreign Operations spending bill would be an “issue.”

In addition to the nondiscrimination rules, Shaheen’s amendment would require the GAO to look at the structure of certain grant programs and how coupling family planning or HIV/AIDS funding with other USAID initiatives is impacting the health care programs.

There have been indications that when women’s economic empowerment programs are paired with health care programs, for example, the economic programs can somewhat elbow out the health care initiatives core mission, a Shaheen aide said. Funding for women’s economic empowerment programs has been a signature initiative of Trump’s daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, but Vought’s letter didn’t specifically mention that aspect of Shaheen’s amendment.

The amendment would also increase funding for family planning and reproductive health programs by $57.5 million, to $632.5 million, which is another concern of anti-abortion advocates.

Handshake deal

House Democrats added language to their State-Foreign Operations spending bill to repeal the Mexico City policy; meaning that if a similar amendment was added to the Senate bill, it would have been extremely difficult to remove during final House-Senate negotiations. If that had made into final legislation, it’s likely Trump would have vetoed the measure.

In July, congressional leaders and the White House reached a “handshake” agreement to avoid so-called poison pill provisions in final spending bills. But ever since, neither side has seemed able to agree on what a poison pill means. The Mexico City issue temporarily stalled movement on the Senate’s State-Foreign Operations bill, with Shelby having to pull the measure from the panel’s schedule initially.

Shaheen ultimately agreed not to offer a similar amendment, which would have garnered enough committee support with the votes of GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, after discussions with State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Inclusion in the typically noncontroversial manager’s package signals that Graham did not find it particularly problematic.

The Shaheen amendment that ultimately made into the Senate version isn’t included in the House version. But Evan Hollander, a spokesman for House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., said she’s “strongly advocating for a final [State-Foreign Operations] bill that protects vulnerable women and girls around the world.”

Lowey is also chairwoman of the State-Foreign Operations panel in the House.

Earlier Friday, Lowey said negotiations to wrap up work on all 12 of the fiscal 2020 spending bills are proceeding and could be finished over the weekend. She said it’s possible the House could vote on at least some of the measures as early as next week. The current deadline to pass all dozen appropriations bills and get them signed into law is Dec. 20, when stopgap funding runs out.