The Cable

Senators punt on women’s protection bill to go campaigning

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was set to vote yesterday on a bill to drastically expand U.S. government support to end violence against women around the world. Before that could happen, however, there was to be a debate over GOP attempts to add broad new restrictions on government funding for abortions.

But neither the debate nor the vote happened. The meeting was cancelled because too many senators were out campaigning.

"We can't get a quorum [to hold the meeting] because Senator Boxer has a debate, Senator Feingold is not here, and some Republicans have a caucus," Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), told The Cable.

Ironically, Boxer has spoken out forcefully for the legislation, called the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), at past meetings. But her absence Wednesday contributed to a delay that will push consideration of the bill until after the Nov. 2 midterm elections and probably until next year, when the political makeup of the Senate will have changed dramatically.

The legislation would give expansive new authorities to the State Department and the Defense Department to fund all types of organizations that are working to combat violence against women and girls in various countries.

This issue is a key priority of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and it constitutes a rampant problem throughout the world. In Congo, for example, U.N. peacekeepers have been completely unable to stop widespread rape by warring militias.

But the bill cannot come to a vote until committee members debate a Republican amendment prohibiting  any organization receiving U.S. government funds from performing or promoting abortions in any way, even with money obtained from other sources.

That is what's been known since 1984 as the "Mexico City Policy," named for the city where President Ronald Reagan first announced it. President Clinton rescinded the policy in 1993, President Bush reinstated it in 2001, and President Obama rescinded it again in 2009.

This time, the man trying to reinstate it is Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), who was planning to offer this amendment to the IVAWA at the SFRC business meeting scheduled for Wednesday. He talked about his amendment in an interview Wednesday with The Cable.

"It's designed to make sure that the numerous NGOs and private charitable entities that are empowered by this act do not pay for or advocate for abortions," Wicker said, adding he didn't know if the amendment would pass.

Democrats currently control the Senate and therefore the committee, so could seemingly vote down Wicker's amendment. Kerry said he had prepared another amendment that would protect the current policy.

But Bob Casey (D-PA), one of the Democrats on the committee, is pro-life and told The Cable that he also has prepared language to add to the bill that's not quite the same as Wicker's but still places new restrictions on abortion funding.

If the bill had been approved by the committee Wednesday, it could have been passed by the full Senate. Maine Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe are sponsors of the bill, meaning that even if Casey voted no, Democrats could gather the 60 votes needed to close debate and approve the bill.

But since that is now impossible this year, passing the bill is expected to become even more challenging following the midterm elections, when more Republicans are expected to be in the Senate and on the SFRC. When senators return next year, they may have to make further concessions to Wicker and others on the abortion issue in order to get enough votes. Or they may just abandon their attempts to pass new laws to protect women from violence altogether.

What's clear is that the abortion issue needs to be resolved before the bill can move forward. "Seems to me that we should solve this issue first, because there a lot of good things in this bill that I support," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN).

By not showing up for Wednesday's meeting, pro-choice and pro-women advocates like Boxer and Feingold may have assured that this will not happen.

UPDATE: Committee sources now tell The Cable that Kerry intends to bring up the bill during the November lame duck session after the election. If he is able to do that, Wednesday's delay won't have a negative effect on the progress of the bill, at least as far as the committee is concerned.

As for the full Senate vote, that was never really a possibility before recess anyway, these sources report, because Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has made it clear he will place a hold on the bill unless an offset is found for the money it authorizes, meaning that passage by unanimous consent would be off the table and floor time would be needed for a debate and vote on the bill.

The Cable

U.S. underrepresented at several U.N. agencies

Obama administration officials have spoken a great deal about their drive to reinvigorate U.S. participation in international organizations, including the United Nations. But last year, the American presence and influence in several parts of the United Nations actually declined, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found.

"In 2009, the United States was underrepresented, based on formal and informal targets, at all five of the UN organizations GAO reviewed-the Secretariat, World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)," states a new GAO report being released today. "In addition, U.S. representation in policymaking and senior-level positions generally decreased at these UN organizations from 2006 to 2009."

Despite the fact that the United States is assessed to provide 22 percent of the U.N. budget, Americans hold only 10.2 percent of professional positions in the U.N. Secretariat, 8.3 percent in the World Health Organization, and 7.4 percent in the U.N.'s refugee agency.

The report was requested by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) and George Voinovich (R-OH), the chair and ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management.

"I am greatly concerned about the United States' underrepresentation in UN agencies, which is why I asked GAO to conduct a follow-up review.  U.S. citizens working in UN organizations provide valuable expertise while strengthening our global leadership and expanding our country's influence," said Akaka.   "As I have stated in the past, providing more entry level professional opportunities in multilateral institutions is key to building a more secure future.  I urge the State Department to take up GAO's recommendations."

The primary office responsible for managing the U.S. involvement in the United Nations is the Bureau of International Organization Affairs (IO), led by Assistant Secretary Esther Brimmer. The State Department has been making some efforts since 2006 to increase American representation at the United Nations, but progress has been hampered by a variety of factors, including Americans' lack of proficiency in U.N. languages, lengthy hiring processes, and the feeling by some that there's not much opportunity for professional advancement, the report said.

The GAO wants State to take a closer look at the effectiveness of its methods and to report to Congress in greater detail about U.S. representation. It also recommends that State consider implementing a pilot program to fund Junior Professional Officers (JPOs) at U.N. organizations.

"State has not assessed the effectiveness of most of its current efforts to increase U.S. representation," the report stated. "Despite State's efforts, many Americans employed at the five organizations learned about UN job opportunities through their own networks, not through State."

"This report provides several key points of action for the State Department, and I hope Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and our U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice will consider these recommendations to ensure the United States is fairly represented at U.N. agencies," Voinovich said.

UPDATE: Kurtis Cooper, spokesman for the bureau of international organization affairs, sends along this statement:

"We've seen the GAO report and accept its recommendations. As the largest financial contributor to the United Nations, the United States has a vested interest in ensuring that qualified Americans are well-represented within the ranks of the UN and its varied agencies and organizations, and we will continue working diligently toward this goal."