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Senate backs Obama on abortion funding

- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2009

Democrats fended off a Republican effort in the Senate on Wednesday to reinstate a U.S. policy prohibiting the federal government from funding groups that perform or promote abortions overseas.

President Obama last week rescinded that policy, and the Senate defeated on a 60-37 vote an effort by Sen. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican, to reinstate the "Mexico City policy."

Mr. Martinez offered the amendment during the debate on reauthorizing the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, saying he and millions of other Americans with moral and religious objections to abortion should not have to support it with their tax money.

"The core of this argument is whether U.S. taxpayers ought to be forced to fund efforts abroad that utilize abortion as a means of family planning," he said. "If we want to continue fostering a culture of life, where every life is considered sacred, every child is celebrated, and life at all stages is given the dignity it deserves, then we will reinstate this policy."

But 54 Democrats, four Republicans and the Senate's two Democrat-leaning independents disagreed with Mr. Martinez and voted against the amendment. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the lone Democrat to support the effort, along with 36 Republicans. The four Republicans who voted with the Democratic majority were Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

President Reagan established the Mexico City policy in 1984. President Clinton rescinded the policy almost immediately upon taking office in 1993, but President Bush reinstated the policy at the start of his term in January 2001. Capitol Hill Democrats repeatedly have inserted provisions in spending bills in recent years to rescind the policy, but Mr. Bush had used veto threats to strike the language from the final versions of the legislation.

Democrats say the policy, which critics often call the "gag rule," actually increased the number of abortions in poor countries, where they are often dangerous to the mother, by reducing access to condoms and other forms of contraception supplied by United States Agency for International Development.

"President Obama, like President Clinton, did the right thing," Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, said on the Senate floor Wednesday. "He stood up for the lives of women, and for family planning and the health of women all over the world."

But Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, who voted to restore the policy, said it was counterproductive to debate a children's health bill while also voting to allow federal money to be used for abortions.

"President Obama campaigned on a platform of reducing abortions, yet one of his first official acts was to force millions of American taxpayers who find this practice immoral to pay for more abortions overseas," he said.

Martinez spokesman Ken Lundberg said the senator may take up the issue again later. "We're considering our options," he said.

The amendment's lopsided defeat, however, has dampened Republican enthusiasm for another attempt at reinstating the policy. "With 60 people [voting no], we've got our work cut out for us," a senior Republican Senate aide said.

The Democratic majority in the Senate on Wednesday also soundly rejected several other Republican amendments to the SCHIP bill, including measures to prohibit children from higher income families to participate, and a less expensive Republican alternative to expand the program.

The Senate is expected to vote Thursday or Friday to approve a $32 billion expansion to SCHIP, a federal-state initiative for families that don't qualify for health care through Medicaid but can't afford private insurance. A similar 4 1/2-year extension, which would be financed with a 61-cent tax on cigarette packs, already has passed the House.