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Oberstar backs plan to loosen abortion rules for overseas groups

This week will determine the fate of legislation to loosen restrictions on abortion groups overseas — language that has seen some support from a surprising corner: pro-life members of the Democratic Party, including Minnesota’s Jim Oberstar.

Last week, Oberstar was one of five House Democrats opposed to abortion who sent a letter to key committee chairs asking that the provisions be kept in the final version of a bill Congress will consider as soon as Tuesday. President Bush has repeatedly threatened to veto any legislation that tinkers with U.S. abortion policy overseas.

“This provision enjoys the support of Members on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the abortion debate because it will help reduce the need for abortions, the number of unintended pregnancies, and the spread of HIV/AIDS,” they wrote.

The language will, or won’t, be a part of a monster bill that includes all the federal government’s non-military spending for the fiscal year. Also included are policy riders through which Congress tries to get its claws into what the administration can and cannot do.

In this case, the House and Senate have each passed a smaller spending bill including a rider rolling back the abortion rules, known as the Mexico City Policy. Congress never wrote a final version, however, and now, with time running out, Democratic leaders have decided to combine the 11 remaining spending bills into one large pile to drop on Bush’s desk.

Democrats are still working out final deals, including Mexico City, but they appear to have a strategy to move the legislation. They have been engaged in a running public battle with the president on overall spending levels as well as policy riders. Democrats want to spend about $21 billion more than Bush — about 2 percent of overall government spending. By sending him one large bill, they will dare him to torpedo the whole package over just a few of its provisions. It’s a dare that Bush took over the weekend, when his budget director said he would veto the bill.

Also at stake for Minnesota in the spending measure is about $34.4 million in earmarked projects that the state’s House members have requested, as well as more money for the I-35W bridge.

U.S. funding prohibited
The Mexico City Policy, first put in place under Ronald Reagan, suspended by Bill Clinton and reinstated by George W. Bush, prohibits U.S. funds from groups who promote or perform abortions overseas. (That restriction would not be legal in the United States, due to the First Amendment.) Critics say it excludes experienced maternal health and family planning programs and even affects groups lobbying for women’s rights.

The version of the bill the Senate passed would overturn the policy, but its House counterpart would merely loosen it, allowing condoms, but not money, to go to the affected groups.

Both chambers turned back attempts to strip the language, and the Senate endorsed the stronger language 53-41, with seven Republicans joining 44 Democrats. (Both Independents supported it too. Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar backed it, while Norm Coleman voted no.) That was enough to approve the language, but it won’t be enough to override a veto.

About 40 of the House’s 233 Democrats oppose abortion rights, according to advocacy groups who watch the issue. About 15 of those have supported changes to the Mexico City Policy.

The Oberstar letter cites the House language, which they call a “modest and reasonable good-faith offer to the president,” as a compromise between doing nothing and rolling it back completely.

“The House-passed contraceptives provision is a pragmatic ‘prevention first’ measure that will provide critical health supplies to some of the world’s most vulnerable populations,” they wrote.

Because the massive end-of-year measure funds so many programs, including war money for Afghanistan, the pressure is on to strip out small provisions like Mexico City. Bush has little incentive to compromise and has spent the fall publicly berating Democrats for failing to pass the spending bills at his requested level. That obstinacy could lead Democrats to charge ahead with their priorities and then make political hay of a Bush veto.

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