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Anti-Abortion Row Derails State Department Policy Bill

Congress came close to passing the bill, which could have raised the spirits of a bruised and battered State Department.

Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) participates in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, November 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) participates in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, November 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

As lawmakers voted in Mike Pompeo as new secretary of state on Thursday, Congress quietly stumbled on what would have been another major foreign-policy milestone, leaving both sides of the aisle fuming. On Wednesday night, the House came close to doing its principal job on foreign affairs, something it hasn’t done since 2002: authorizing the State Department.

After six months of grinding work hashing out an authorization bill, both Republican and Democratic members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and their staffers thought they had a draft version with widespread bipartisan support in the bag, no small feat after more than 15 years of impasse.

But on Wednesday night, the bill that looked so promising suddenly went up in smoke. Five congressional aides say it started with a last-minute curveball from Chris Smith, a Republican representative from New Jersey.

Smith, the aides say, wanted to add a stringent anti-abortion initiative to the bill, related to the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues. That was a non-starter for Democrats and even opposed by some Republicans, who felt bringing the abortion debate into the mix would shatter the fragile bipartisan negotiations.

Things quickly devolved after Democrats countered with their own amendments deemed problematic by Republicans, and “it just spiraled from there,” says one source familiar with Republicans’ deliberations. The debacle left Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of foreign affairs committee, disappointed and frustrated, Republican congressional aides say.

Now the committee has officially postponed the markup on the bill, but behind the scenes, lawmakers and their staffers are questioning whether it can be salvaged. Smith’s last-minute initiative “drove the bill off a cliff,” says the Republican source. “I don’t know how they get this back on track now.”

Smith’s office did not respond to Foreign Policy’s request for comment.

The State Department authorization bill is the one opportunity Congress has to outline U.S. foreign-policy priorities and strategies, and marry them to dollar figures. If it’s not passed, the State Department still gets money through the appropriations committees, but without the formal policy guidance of Congress.

Each attempt to pass an authorization bill has stumbled and faltered due to specific provisions members threw in that were non-starters for the other party, on issues such as funding international pro-abortion rights reproductive health groups and the U.S. role in the United Nations.

“Of course it matters,” says Jeff Rathke, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former State Department official, referring to the authorization bill.

“Especially with the start of a term of a new secretary of state, with a congress controlled by his party, the State Department could really benefit from more stable and well-anchored” direction from Congress, he says.

This bill, both Democrats and Republicans agree, was particularly important to signal lawmakers’ support for the State Department after it spent more than a year being marginalized and gutted by the Trump administration.

“This was really sending a message to diplomats that we’ve got their back, and we’ve got their back in a bipartisan fashion,” says one Democratic aide. Smith’s eleventh hour proposal just “poison[ed] that entire process,” the aide says.

“We hit two roadblocks last night, one was from Mr. Smith, and the other was from the Democrats,” a Republican committee aide countered. “We thought we had outlined a path to dealing with Mr. Smith’s amendments, but the Democrats were not willing to work with us on it.”

The last time Congress passed an authorization bill for the State Department was in 2002, a time when Barack Obama was an Illinois state senator and less than 10 percent of the world population used the internet. Some countries the State Department manages relations with, such as South Sudan, Kosovo, and Montenegro, didn’t yet exist.

In 2016, the Senate passed and former President Barack Obama signed something close to an authorization bill, called an “authorities bill,” that outlined policies but didn’t touch the core issue of money.

The only authorization bill that hasn’t fallen victim to partisan infighting is the National Defense Authorization Act for the Pentagon’s budget, which dwarfs the State Department’s. Consequently, every other authorizing committee throws their policy priorities into the defense authorization bill, which only adds to the creeping jurisdiction the Pentagon has over diplomacy and foreign aid.

“This is a situation where our committee has perpetually lost jurisdiction,” vents another Democratic congressional staffer.

Both Royce and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House foreign affairs committee, put out statements Thursday’s on the bill’s faltering.

“It’s very disappointing that a few members — in both parties — have decided to politicize and undermine a good, bipartisan bill that supports our diplomats and strengthens our embassy security,” Royce said.

“I think this bill could still be viable if we avoid such poison pills going forward,” Engel said. “I look forward to continuing to work with Chairman Royce to push this authorization forward in our Committee.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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