Abortion compromise frees U.N. funds

Budget accord still stalled, but congressional leaders hoping to vote this week

November 16, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman and Karen Hosler | Jonathan Weisman and Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- White House and congressional negotiators agreed yesterday to legislative language that could restrict abortion advocacy by overseas family planning organizations, in exchange for nearly $1 billion in back dues for the United Nations.

The agreement came as the negotiators scrambled to tie up the remaining loose ends on a budget deal they hope Congress can approve this week.

One last-minute addition was a $500 million disaster relief package for victims of Hurricane Floyd.

Several major items remained in dispute last night, however, most notably a $6.5 billion gap in revenue.

"Until it's signed and sealed and filed in the House, you can't be sure of anything," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman C. W. "Bill" Young, a Florida Republican, as he entered a negotiating session last night.

White House officials insisted that the abortion compromise would have little real-world impact. Under the deal, President Clinton can waive the restrictions on abortion advocacy, though doing so would result in a 3 percent cut in overseas family planning assistance.

The U.N. agreement drew criticism from both sides. Abortion opponents said there was no reason to make the compromise. Family planning groups said the restrictions would mean cutting already scant funding or a gag on their family planning work.

Underscoring the sensitivity of the issue, a senior adviser to Democratic presidential hopeful Al Gore, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the vice president strongly expressed his reservations about the deal and would have opposed it.

If Gore secures the Democratic nomination, he will rely heavily on the abortion issue to energize core Democratic voters and to draw distinctions between himself and his Republican opponent.

"The vice president is disappointed that the White House felt it necessary to accept what was really Republican extortion," the adviser said.

For social conservatives who are strongly oppose abortion and are suspicious of the United Nations, the deal was equally unacceptable.

"There was no reason to make a deal," said Phyllis Schlafly, president of the conservative Eagle Forum. "I wish they had held out completely."

The agreement freed up nearly $1 billion, about two-thirds of the amount the United Nations says the United States owes it.

Since 1997, Republicans have linked payment of back dues to the abortion restrictions, and Clinton has let payment slip rather than capitulate.

But the this year, if the United States had not paid $111 million in arrears by Jan. 1, it would have lost its vote in the General Assembly -- a prospect that Clinton could not accept, White House officials said.

"We have been working at this for seven years, and it's a very important decision for our national security," said Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, traveling with the president in Ankara, Turkey. "I have been very concerned that our lack of payment of our U.N. dues and arrears has impeded our ability to have the kind of influence that we need to have at the U.N."

The breakthrough also brought congressional and White House negotiators close to a final deal on a federal budget for fiscal 2000, which began Oct. 1. Clinton has extracted an additional $5.2 billion from GOP leaders to fund 29,000 new teachers and thousands of more police officers, to help implement the Middle East peace accords, to secure nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union, to purchase wilderness lands and to finance after-school programs.

Negotiators were nearing agreement on language that would allow the International Monetary Fund to join the United States in offering debt relief to Third World Nations.

Young reported progress on two policy riders, involving toxic waste rules for mining companies, which administration aides said would harm the environment.

But negotiators still have to make up for a $6.5 billion shortage in revenue to pay for all the spending the two sides have agreed to.

"We're not going to put any of that money in there until we know how we can do it without touching Social Security," said Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Ted Stevens.

In addition to the budget work, Congress has two other major pieces of legislation it is determined to complete before lawmakers adjourn for the year. One would extend a package of expiring tax credits; the other would restore, over five years, about $11 billion worth of cuts made two years ago to the Medicare program.

Still, with the release of the U.N. dues, the largest policy dispute had been resolved.

Total funding for overseas family planning was set at $385 million, the same level it has been since 1997.

At its peak, in 1995, family planning assistance had reached $542 million. With the expected waiver, assistance would drop to $372.5 million.

Some family planning officials were incensed, not just at the Republicans but at the White House.

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