A House committee voted Wednesday to eliminate some $50 million that President Barack Obama requested for the U.N. organization that helps women and children in developing countries with reproductive health and family planning, a reflection of growing Republican anger with both the world body and its work in China.
The GOP-led Foreign Affairs Committee approved legislation that targets the yearly U.S. contribution to the U.N. Population Fund, an organization the United States helped found in the late 1960s. Republican administrations typically have withheld funds from the group, but Obama restored the money.
The party-line vote was 23-17.
Committee Republicans criticized the U.N. group's efforts in China, which limits urban families to one child and rural families to two if their first is a girl. The rules were established in 1979 to stem population growth in the world's most populous country, but critics complain that it has resulted in human rights abuses, such as forced sterilizations and abortions.
"Why, when Americans face a struggling economy, skyrocketing deficits and crushing debt should our taxpayer dollars got to an organization that supports coercive abortion and is flush with cash?" asked Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the committee. She said the U.N. Population Fund has unspent funds of some $500 million.
Democrats countered that the organization shouldn't be penalized for China's laws, especially when it does honorable work in places such as Haiti, the Congo and countries hard hit by natural disasters and regional strife.
"Don't hold the U.N. culpable for what a sovereign country does, as obnoxious as it is," said Rep. Howard Berman of California, the top Democrat on the committee.
The committee's debate and vote was a prelude to next week's session when the panel will consider Ros-Lehtinen's legislation that would withhold or slash funds to the United Nations. Ros-Lehtinen, a frequent critic of the U.N., says it is plagued by scandal, mismanagement and inaction, and is biased against the United States and Israel.
It also comes as Congress makes deep cuts to foreign aid.
In a sometimes heated four-hour session, Republicans turned aside 10 Democratic amendments that would have made exceptions to the spending cut. GOP lawmakers acknowledged that the organization did good work in other countries, but they refused to support amendments that would have carved out exceptions for maternal health services in places struck by earthquakes or tsunamis or to reduce abortions or unintended pregnancies.
In the oddest twist, Republicans rejected an amendment that would have barred the secretary of state from making a contribution to the U.N. fund if it supported coercive abortions and China's one-child policy. The amendment failed 22-16.
Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., questioned Republicans' consistency.
"Should we boycott Google because they abide by China's laws?" Ackerman asked.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., said the Congress need not be "complicit with this agency as they are complicit with China's one-child policy."
It's unclear when the full House will vote on the legislation in the remaining weeks of the session. The companion foreign aid spending bill also prohibits funds to the organization and caps money for population and reproductive health services at $461 million, which was what the level of spending in fiscal year 2008.
Meanwhile, two House members on a different panel warned the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, that it could lose the nearly $80 million the U.S. contributes if it follows its board's recommendation and admits Palestine as a member.
Reps. Kay Granger, R-Texas, and Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., the chairwoman and ranking member of the House panel that controls U.S. foreign aid, respectively, noted that U.S. law prohibits giving funds to the United Nations or any U.N. agency that grants the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states. The full body is expected to vote on Palestinian membership later this month.
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