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Senate passes
foreign aid bill easing abstinence restrictions

Senate passes
foreign aid bill easing abstinence restrictions

The U.S. Senate voted to lift restrictions on family-planning aid to overseas health organizations that perform abortions or promote the procedure as a method of family planning.

Thursday's vote came as the Senate passed by a 81-12 vote a $34 billion measure funding foreign aid and U.S. diplomacy. Companion legislation passed the U.S. House in June, and the measure now heads to House-Senate negotiations over a final version.

But the family-planning vote has dim prospects of becoming law. President George W. Bush is a passionate advocate of the current policy and has promised to veto any attempt to undermine it.

Such veto threats also apply to the underlying bill covering foreign aid and the U.S. State Department budget. It would ease the restrictions to permit family-planning groups cut off from U.S. aid to accept U.S.-donated contraceptives.

In a brief but emotional debate, Democratic senator Barbara Boxer said overseas family-planning groups are blocked from counseling women about abortion or from participating in debates about abortion policy in their own countries if they want to hold onto their U.S. aid.

''The policy literally gags foreign organizations that receive (U.S.) family-planning funds,'' Boxer said.

In response, Republican senator Sam Brownback said U.S. taxpayers should not be required to subsidize organizations involved in abortions. He is mounting a long-shot bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination and is focusing his attention on the party's base of social conservatives.

''It's a gut-check issue about where you stand on life ... where you stand on whether or not we should be using taxpayer funds for abortion,'' Brownback said.

The vote to overturn the so-called Mexico City policy, named after the population conference where former president Ronald Reagan announced it, was expected.

But by a 48-45 vote, Brownback narrowly won a bid aimed at continuing Bush administration policy barring U.S. contributions to the U.N. Population Fund because of aid provided to China, whose population-control program relies on coerced abortions.

The overall bill would cut Bush's chief foreign aid program to help emerging democracies. It also would funnel more money to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria around the world.

Bush requested $3 billion for the Millennium Challenge Corp., a program that assists countries in putting in place economic and political reforms. That total would fall to $1.2 billion under the Senate bill. The administration has been slow to spend earlier money for the program.

The spending measure would boost Bush's $4.2 billion request for the global HIV/AIDS account by $940 million. Lawmakers are adding $590 million to the administration's request for a global fund to combat AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, enough money to almost triple it.

Altogether, however, the Senate would cut Bush's request for foreign aid and the State Department budget by about $700 million, transferring money to domestic accounts favored on Capitol Hill.

The bill also provides military aid to familiar allies in the Middle East. Israel would receive $2.4 billion, while Egypt receives $1.3 billion. Afghanistan would receive about $1.1 billion for humanitarian assistance and reconstruction aid.

But the Senate joined the House in denying the administration's $456 million request for aid to Iraq; $2.8 billion in Iraq reconstruction aid provided in May has yet to be spent. (AP)

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