Legislation providing $34 billion for State Department and foreign aid programs has sparked sharp debate over a range of issues in the House of Representatives. VOA's Dan Robinson reports, the Bush administration is opposing key portions of the 2008 foreign operations bill, which must also be approved by the Senate, as lawmakers argued over funding priorities.
At stake is annual funding for many global priorities, including U.S. contributions to the United Nations and peacekeeping operations, humanitarian aid for refugees, support for HIV/AIDS and other health programs, and assistance to such countries as Pakistan, Egypt, Colombia, and Liberia among others.
In more than 50 amendments, lawmakers sought to add or remove funds from the measure which contains 10 percent more than 2007 levels, but less than what President Bush wanted overall.
Some of the most emotional debate occurred over attempts to restore funds to support democracy activities in Cuba.
Republican Congressman Lincoln Diaz Balart noted that the legislation proposed to fund only 20 percent of the original request from the White House.
"Let us not turn our backs on the Cuban internal opposition," said Lincoln Diaz Balart. "They will play a key role in the inevitable Democratic transition that it is approaching, and we must do all we can so that they can survive the brutality of the totalitarian police state of violence and terror that fortunately, to a great extent because of the pro-democracy movement in Cuba will soon be but a tragic and perverse historical memory."
The House voted to approve Balart's amendment to restore $37 million in funding for democracy and civil society programs for Cuba.
President Bush has signaled his intention to veto the foreign operations bill, citing a range of objections.
These include a sharp reduction for the president's Millennium Challenge program for countries pursuing political and economic reforms, economic and other aid for Iraq, a $33-million cut in economic aid for Pakistan, and reductions for Colombia.
On Iraq, Republican Frank Wolf offered an amendment to restore more than $150 million in assistance.
"Building the capacity of the Iraqi government should be at the heart of U.S. reconstruction efforts, and capacity building demands additional U.S. resources," said Frank Wolf. "That is what this is on, I urge member on both sides, this ought not be a political issue, a partisan issue."
Congresswoman Nita Lowey, a Democrat from New York, argued that Congress has already provided sufficient funds in other bills.
"The administration should substantially expend the funds we have provided [in other bills] before Congress provides additional funding for the same purposes," said Nita Lowey.
The administration also objects to a restriction on military aid to Egypt until it makes progress on human rights issues, saying this will undermine the U.S. relationship with Egypt.
Sharp exchanges also occurred during a complex debate over U.S. international family planning policies.
The Bush administration asserts that provisions in the legislation are inconsistent with what is called the Mexico City policy, first established by President Reagan, saying it would permit money to go to organizations actively promoting abortion.
Congressman Chris Smith and other Republicans sought to eliminate what they called pro-abortion provisions in the legislation.
"If protecting babies and women from abortion matters to you, and I mean really matters to you, there is no way you can vote to overturn, or even weaken, the Mexico City Policy," said Chris Smith. "This is a time to stand for the innocent and inconvenient ones who can't speak for themselves."
Democrats supported an amendment allowing non-government organizations to receive U.S.- donated contraceptives, but not funding, saying this would not alter or weaken prohibitions against use of funds for abortion overseas, and limiting use of family planning funds.
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney:
"My colleagues on the other side of the aisle say they respect life," said Congresswoman Maloney. "But during the time we have been debating this bill, 65 women around the world will die from pregnancy because of many related complications, and they are dying because they do not have access to the most basic health care, such as contraceptives.
The foreign operations bill also provides$5 billion for the president's HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care program, and $550 million for efforts of the Global Fund on AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, along with billions to support other worldwide public health and education programs.
Congress continues its strong commitment to the people of Darfur, providing $950 million for Sudan, including $210 million for humanitarian and peacekeeping needs.
In supporting U.S. government-funded international broadcasting, lawmakers restore funds to avert cuts in key languages, including English, at the Voice of America and other stations, while funding programming for North Korea.
However, the Bush administration says language directing continuation of such languages undermines plans to reach larger audiences in support of U.S. foreign policy objectives.
An amendment by Florida Republican Connie Mack for the Broadcasting Board of Governors to initiate programming for Venezuela, in response to steps against media outlets by President Hugo Chavez, was accepted by voice vote.