The Cable

House Foreign Affairs Committee votes to reinstate abortion gag rule

On the second day of its marathon markup session, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to reinstate and expand a wide-ranging ban on funding international non-governmental organizations that discuss abortion known as the Mexico City Policy.

Following a contentious day of debate Wednesday on Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's fiscal 2012 State Department and foreign operations authorization bill, the committee finally adjourned at 2 a.m. Thursday morning and then returned at 9 a.m. to resume work on the legislation. One of their first orders of business was to vote on an amendment by ranking Democrat Howard Berman to strip language that would ban any funding for groups that counsel women on family planning options from the bill.

The language that Berman wanted to strip reads: "None of the funds authorized to be appropriated by this act or any amendment made by this Act may be made available to any foreign nongovernmental organization that promotes or performs abortion, except in cases of rape or incest or when the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term."

The bill's language is a version of what has been known since 1984 as the Mexico City Policy, named for the city where President Ronald Reagan first announced it. President Bill Clinton rescinded the policy in 1993, President George W. Bush reinstated it in 2001, and President Barack Obama rescinded it again in 2009.  

Republicans have been trying to restore the policy ever since. Last year, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) helped defeat the International Violence Against Women Act by attaching the Mexico City Policy to the bill in committee, thereby preventing the legislation from reaching the Senate floor.

Berman's amendment failed by a 17-25 vote that played out largely along party lines. Only one Democrat broke ranks, Rep. Ben Chandler (D-KY). The Ros-Lehtinen language is actually an expansion of the policy as it existed during the Bush administration because it would ban all funding for organizations that discuss abortion and not make exceptions for certain programs such as HIV/AIDS funding. Bush made allowances for HIV/AIDS programs to receive funding even within organizations that were affected by the policy.

“The provision included in this bill is far more extreme than the Global Gag Rule policy that was implemented under Presidents Reagan, George Bush, or George W. Bush," said Berman. "It bars ALL assistance to local health care providers in poor countries – including HIV/AIDS funding, water and sanitation, child survival, and education.  In the name of 'right to life,' the majority is cutting off funds that are literally saving hundreds of thousands of lives.”

There's no telling if Ros-Lehtinen's bill will ever see the House floor, much less become law or be signed by Obama, but the inclusion of the Mexico City Policy signals that the GOP intends to keep the issue alive throughout this year's cycle of authorization and appropriations bills, until or unless it is reinstated or defeated outright.

"It is a sad day for the millions of women around the world who need and want access to contraception," said Craig Lasher, director of government relations for Population Action International, an international NGO that advocates for women's access to contraception and reproductive counseling. "Committee members should be ashamed for taking the Republican Party's war on women to the global stage."

The Cable

Report: It’s time for State’s South Asia bureau and the Af-Pak office to make up and get back together

When the late Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) Richard Holbrooke created the SRAP office at the State Department, he took a big chunk of the authority and staff from the Bureau of South and Central Asia (SCA). But now that he's gone and the Afghanistan war is maybe, possibly, starting to wind down, the two bureaus should move toward a reunion, the State Department's Inspector General said in a new report released today.

"Communications between SCA and S/SRAP have not been as effective as they could be," the report stated. "With a likely transition of the [Afghanistan and Pakistan] desks and other S/SRAP responsibilities back to SCA in the next several years, SCA needs to begin to be more broadly engaged in or aware of S/SRAP programs and activities that it may inherit at that time."

When Holbrooke entered the Obama administration, he hired 28 staffers -- none of them from SCA --and then told SCA that the bureau no longer had any control over Afghanistan or Pakistan and its current Af-Pak staffers now worked for him. The Nelson Report's Chris Nelson described a February 2009 meeting, which he dubbed the "Grand Confrontation," in which Holbrooke beat down attempts by then-SCA Assistant Secretary Richard Boucher to hold on to his Af-Pak personnel.

"At a summit in Boucher's office with the assembled DAS's [deputy assistant secretaries], et al, Boucher said something to the effect, ‘As you know, you work for me, and you will continue to report TO me, is that clear?'" Nelson reported. "Holbrooke, not looking at Boucher, responded directly to the stunned staffers with, ‘What part of 'you will report directly to ME did you NOT understand?', and there the meeting ended."

Boucher left later that year to become deputy secretary general of the OSCE and was replaced by Robert Blake.

With the looming figure of Holbrooke gone, SRAP's activities, now guided by Marc Grossman, have been pared down. The office has been directed to focus on Afghan reconciliation, which apparently isn't going well. The report often mentions that the key official in charge of coordinating between SRAP and SCA is a Deputy SRAP who is dual-hatted as a DAS in SCA; that's  Frank Ruggiero.

The coordination between SRAP and SCA has actually gotten worse since Holbrooke's death, according to the Inspector General. For example, SRAP and SCA hold their weekly meetings at the same time, so nobody can attend both, and SRAP involvement in SCA work has trailed off.

"The flow of communication between SCA and S/SRAP is inadequate, as is SCA's awareness of S/SRAP programs and activities in such areas as strategic communications and regional economic issues," the report said.

But the report treats the eventual incorporation of SRAP back into SCA as inevitable, and advises both sides to start preparing for it.

 "When the transition takes place, SCA's awareness of S/SRAP programs and activities will be essential for continuity. To meet its responsibilities, SCA - particularly the bureau's DASes and office directors - will need to be aware of and participate in appropriate S/SRAP meetings and events."