After several hours of debate and votes on 10 amendments, House appropriators on Thursday advanced to the floor annual foreign aid spending legislation that would make history with its repeal of a decades-old anti-abortion provision and significant increases in family planning funding.
That’s if the language can survive contentious negotiations in the Senate where lawmakers who support abortion rights will need to contend with the Republican filibuster, which could lead to the watering down of the abortion access provisions that House Democrats are proudly championing this budget cycle.
Voting along party lines, the House Appropriations Committee voted 32-25 to advance, as amended, the fiscal 2022 State-Foreign Operations spending bill, which would increase funding for diplomacy and development by 12 percent over 2021 enacted levels.
Overall, the foreign aid spending bill would provide $62.2 billion to the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development and several smaller foreign policy programs. That amount is more than $6.7 billion higher than fiscal 2021 levels.
Republicans made three attempts at the committee’s markup of the bill to reinsert the abortion-related provisions that Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Lee, D-Calif., had deleted. Those efforts all failed, but Republicans predicted that bicameral negotiations would result in either a more palatable version of the measure or risk sinking the entire funding bill.
“This has been the fundamental protection for the unborn in the State-Foreign Operations bill for decades,” Appropriations Committee ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, said in introducing her amendment to reinsert the policy rider, known as the Helms amendment, which bans U.S. foreign aid from being used to pay for abortions. “It is why global health programs have achieved great bipartisan support and its removal jeopardizes that kind of support in the future.”
Lee, D-Calif., defending the first foreign aid bill written under her direction as the new chairwoman of the State-Foreign Operations subcommittee, adamantly resisted GOP efforts to reinsert the Helms provision.
“For too long, the Helms amendment has prevented millions of the most vulnerable people in the world from accessing the critical abortion care and from making the reproductive decisions that are best for themselves and their families,” Lee said. “The Helms amendment is a direct impediment to reducing unsafe abortions and maternal deaths. Further, the Helms amendment actively discriminates against Black and brown women throughout the world who are the most seriously impacted by this policy.”
Granger’s amendment failed by a vote of 27-31, as did a related effort by Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa, to reinsert a long-standing bill provision that bars funding to any organization determined to support policies that lead to coercive abortions or involuntary sterilization. That amendment also failed, 27-31.
Lee, a co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, is the first Democratic foreign aid cardinal to produce a bill that repeals the Helms amendment, which is named after its sponsor, Jesse Helms, the former Republican senator from North Carolina, and has been in every foreign aid bill since 1973. Helms died in 2008.
While President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2022 budget request to Congress seeks the repeal of the Hyde amendment, which prohibits federal funding for domestic abortions, he did not include repeal of the Helms amendment in his request, to the disappointment of progressives.
The foreign aid legislation would further permanently repeal the Mexico City policy, which prohibits foreign nongovernmental organizations that receive U.S. global health assistance funds from also advocating for or facilitating access to abortions. The policy, which dates to 1984, has been repealed by Democratic presidents only to be reissued and expanded by Republican ones.
The partisan whipsaw nature of the policy, particularly with the significant expansion it underwent during the Trump years to include all global health assistance funding, had a disorienting impact on numerous aid groups providing family planning services and other types of health care, particularly those operating in sub-Saharan Africa as they were forced to choose between accepting U.S. funding or narrowing the types of services they could provide.
Lee is attempting to put an end to any future Republican president’s ability to administratively reinstate the Mexico City policy.
Republicans were also unsuccessful in their effort to strip from the bill funding for the United Nations Population Fund, or UNFPA, which provides family planning services in nations and regions where USAID reproductive health programs don’t reach. That amendment, from Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., failed, 26-32.
Lee went further than the Biden administration’s request in providing funds for reproductive health assistance. The legislation would direct $760 million toward family planning, which is $176 million more than what was requested and $185 million higher than current levels. The bill would further fund UNFPA at $70 million, nearly $38 million more than the current U.S. contribution level and $14 million more than what the State Department requested.
The committee adopted several amendments.
They included a bipartisan manager’s package from Lee that raised by $15 million money for the Countering Russian Influence Fund and barred any foreign aid from going to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, which some lawmakers suspect may have accidentally leaked the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic. The institute had previously received indirect U.S. government funding.
Appropriators also agreed to accept by voice vote a bipartisan amendment from Reps. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, and Harris, co-chairs of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, to take away for fiscal 2022 the State Department's ability to waive a congressional requirement that sanctions be imposed on foreign individuals and companies assisting in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is intended to carry Russian natural gas to Germany.
And an amendment from Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla, to reinsert committee report language requiring the State Department to notify lawmakers of the details of any agreement reached with a third-party government to accept the transfer of a Guantanamo Bay detainee was also adopted by voice vote.