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 President Clinton rescinded the policy in 1993, President Bush reinstated it in 2001, and President Obama rescinded it again in 2009.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.

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