Legislative Update:
Right Wingers in Congress Play Hardball

by Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director

Reproductive Rights Battle Rages On

The closing days of the first session of the 105th Congress saw an unprecedented effort to punish the Clinton administration and abortion rights supporters who opposed a "global gag rule" on abortion for international family planning programs.

In retaliation for a veto threat if the gag rule were included, conservatives stripped a foreign aid bill of Clinton-supported provisions for $926 million in United Nations dues and a multi-billion dollar credit line for the International Monetary Fund. Deletion of these funds and other retribution are reported to have far-reaching international repercussions.

Abortion rights supporters were alarmed by congressional right wingers' more vicious game of political hardball this year. Republican leaders reportedly told the administration they intend to continue tying unrelated issues, like abortion restrictions, to appropriations bills and other administration priorities.

Congress approved $385 million to continue U.S. population assistance and family planning programs, but parceled it out in small monthly amounts. Program administrators, many from struggling developing nations, indicate that this metering of funds is slowly strangling services.

Congress re-authorized many reproductive rights restrictions in various spending bills, including a ban on abortions for women in federal prisons, a ban on research on human embryos and a prohibition against the use of locally raised funds in the District of Columbia for abortion services for low-income women. Newly adopted measures extend the Hyde language (prohibiting the use of federal funds to provide abortions) to other health programs, such as the new insurance program for children under age 18.

In the absence of any exception for women s health, President Clinton immediately vetoed the so-called Partial Birth Abortion Ban bill (H.R. 1122) once it hit his desk. Abortion opponents vowed to make the matter an even hotter election year issue in order to defeat abortion rights incumbents in Congress.

Senate Leaders Hold Up Confirmations

The new hardball political game was also obvious when the Senate's Republican leadership refused to approve two Clinton administration nominees NOW supports, Dr. David Satcher for Surgeon General and Bill Lann Lee for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. Dr. Satcher was approved in committee, but the floor vote was then delayed.

In the face of an imminent confirmation vote for Lee, Republican spokespersons went to work criticizing the record of this ardent advocate of civil rights law. The western regional counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Lee has a distinguished record in negotiating legal settlements with employers to resolve patterns of sex and race discrimination.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chair of the Judiciary Committee, withheld the committee vote claiming that Lee would use his position to "advocate for affirmative action." And the hardball continues Clinton responded by installing Lee as acting civil rights chief, an appointment that could last throughout Clinton's term.

With the ratcheting up of anti-affirmative action rhetoric by right-wing leadership, civil rights advocates expected that the so-called Civil Rights Act of 1997 (H.R. 1909), sponsored by Rep. Charles T. Canady, R-Fla., would be passed by the House Judiciary Committee and sent to the floor. However, the bill was tabled before adjournment.

Congress also delayed consideration of a proposal to repeal part of a major transportation funding bill, its Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program, which assists women- and minority-owned businesses. The question will be taken up early this year when re-authorization of the $145 million Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act will come up.

Equity in Education At Stake

Activists gained a temporary reprieve in the fight to protect sex equity programs in education and job training when members of Congress dropped provisions in the Labor, Human Resources, and Education appropriations bill de-funding those programs.

The Senate approved an amendment that would have overridden sex- or race-based anti-discrimination requirements applicable to educational institutions receiving federal funds and would have scuttled most federal financial aid to education; it failed to pass the House, however. Observers believe that such efforts will be repeated in 1998 by right-wing leaders to advance their anti-women, anti-minority agenda before the November elections.

The prospect of educational vouchers moved closer to reality when the Senate approved a voucher program for the District of Columbia. Included in the authorization is explicit approval for single-sex schools and school prayer in programs that receive publicly funded vouchers. Critics believe that the use of vouchers will further weaken public school systems and will lead to an even more class-segregated society.

A small victory for equity advocates came with Senate restoration of some funding and specific mandates for states to continue sex equity programs in vocational education. The House had deleted funds for these state-administered programs, which support displaced homemaker services and training for non-traditional jobs. A final vote on the legislation will not occur until February.

Violence Against Women Actions

For the third time, House-Senate conferees deleted crucial language that would help some states decide whether to offer temporary waivers from welfare-to-work requirements for battered women. That action came even though the Senate voted 98 to 1 (with Sen. Helms opposing) to approve the clarification of the Family Violence Option and 80 members of the House sent a letter supporting it to conference committee members.

Conservative leaders on the House Ways and Means Committee, most notably the Chair Bill Archer, R-Texas, and Clay Shaw, R-Fla., claim that the option would allow battered women to avoid going to work.

The problem may be partly resolved by new regulations from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which indicate that states will not be penalized financially for granting temporary good cause waivers to battered women. HHS defines "temporary" as no more than six months.

But states must specifically adopt the Family Violence Option in the plan they submit to the federal government. Under HHS criteria, only 21 states had formally adopted the option by mid-November; however, advocates believe that 28 states have embraced it.

Finally, an important update and expansion of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act will be proposed with a massive new bill to be introduced in mid-February (see related story).

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