The Cable

How Ileana Ros-Lehtinen killed the bill to prevent forced child marriages

Incoming House Foreign Affairs chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) defeated a bill Thursday evening that would have committed the United States to combating forced child marriages abroad, by invoking concerns about the legislation's cost and that funds could be used to promote abortion. The episode highlights the tough road that the Obama administration will face in advancing its women's rights and foreign aid agenda during the next Congressional session.

Non-governmental organizations, women's rights advocates, and lawmakers from both parties spent years developing and lobbying for the "International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2010," which the House failed to pass in a vote Thursday. The bill failed even though 241 Congressmen voted for it and only 166 voted against, because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) brought it up under "suspension of the rules." This procedure has the advantage of not allowing any amendments or changes to the bill, but carries the disadvantage of requiring two-thirds of the votes for passage.

Even still, supporters in both parties fully expected the bill to garner the 290 votes needed -- right up until the bill failed. After all, it passed the Senate unanimously Dec. 1 with the co-sponsorship of several Republicans, including Appropriations Committee ranking Republican Thad Cochran (R-MS), Foreign Relations Committee member Roger Wicker (R-MS), and human rights advocate Sam Brownback (R-KS).

If passed, the bill would have authorized the president to provide assistance "to prevent the incidence of child marriage in developing countries through the promotion of educational, health, economic, social, and legal empowerment of girls and women." It would have also mandated that the administration develop a multi-year strategy on the issue and that the State Department include the incidence of forced child marriage during its annual evaluation of countries' human rights practices.

So what happened? Ros-Lehtinen first argued that the bill was simply unaffordable. In a Dec. 16 "Dear Colleague" letter, she objected to the cost of the bill, which would be $108 million over five years, and criticized it for not providing an accounting of how much the U.S. was already spending on this effort. The actual CBO estimate (PDF) said the bill would authorize $108 million, but would only require $67 million in outlays from fiscal years 2011 to 2015.

Ros-Lehtinen introduced her own version of the bill, which she said would only cost $1 million. But in a fact sheet (PDF), organizations supporting the original legislation said that Ros-Lehtinen's bill removed the implementation procedures that gave the legislation teeth. "Without such activities, the bill becomes merely a strategy with no actual implementation. And without implementation of a strategy, the bill will have an extraordinarily limited impact," they wrote.

Regardless, the supporters still thought the bill would pass because House Republican leadership had not come out against it. But about one hour before the vote, every Republican House office received a message on the bill from GOP leadership, known as a Whip Alert, saying that leadership would vote "no" on the bill and encouraging all Republicans do the same. The last line on the alert particularly shocked the bill's supporters.

"There are also concerns that funding will be directed to NGOs that promote and perform abortion and efforts to combat child marriage could be usurped as a way to overturn pro-life laws," the alert read.

The bill doesn't contain any funding for abortion activities and federal funding for abortion activities is already prohibited by what's known as the "Helms Amendment," which has been boiler plate language in appropriations bills since 1973.

Invoking the abortion issue sent the bill's supporters reeling. They believed that it was little more than a stunt, considering that Republican pro-life senators had carefully reviewed the legislation and concluded it would not have an impact on the abortion issue.

Rep. Stephen LaTourrette (R-OH) called out the Republican leadership for invoking the abortion issue to defeat the forced child marriage act in a floor speech Friday morning.

"Yesterday I was on the floor and I was a co-sponsor with [on] a piece of legislation with [Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN)] that would have moved money, no new money, would have moved money so that societies that are coercing young girls into marriage... we could make sure that they stay in school so they're not forced into marriage at the age of 12 and 13," LaTourette said. "All of a sudden there was a fiscal argument. When that didn't work people had to add an abortion element to it. This is a partisan place. I'm a Republican. I'm glad we beat their butt in the election, but there comes a time when enough is enough."

But it was too late for LaTourette and other Republicans who had fought hard for the bill, including Aaron Schock (R-IL). The bill is even less likely to pass next year, when the GOP will control the House and Ros-Lehtinen will control the Foreign Affairs committee.

The main author of the bill was Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), who was incensed when the bill failed in the House.

"The action on the House floor stopping the Child Marriage bill tonight will endanger the lives of millions of women and girls around the world," Durbin said in a Thursday statement. "These young girls, enslaved in marriage, will be brutalized and many will die when their young bodies are torn apart while giving birth. Those who voted to continue this barbaric practice brought shame to Capitol Hill."

For the NGO and women's advocacy community, the implications of this defeat extend much further than just this bill. They also saw Republicans invoke the abortion issue when objecting to the International Violence Against Women Act and expect the new Congress to push for reinstatement of the "Mexico City Policy," which would prevent federal funding for any organizations that even discuss abortion.

"Any time a health bill that has to do with women and girls comes to the House floor, we're going to see a debate like the one we just saw," said one advocacy leader who supported the bill. "It's hard to imagine how any development bills are going to pass in this environment."

The protection of women and girls is a major focus of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who promised to elevate the issue Thursday when rolling out the State Department's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. She has said that forced child marriage is "a clear and unacceptable violation of human rights", and that "the Department of State categorically denounces all cases of child marriage as child abuse".

State's Ambassador at Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer has worked hard on the issue behind the scenes. But at the eleventh hour, when the going got tough, the bill's supporters said that the administration was nowhere to be found. In October, the White House decided to waive all penalties under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, another Durbin led bill that the NGO community supports.

United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 60 million girls in developing countries now between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before they reached 18. The Population Council, a group focused on reproductive and child health, estimates that the number will increase by 100 million over the next decade if current trends continue.

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