Absent Without Leave

Our democratic presidential candidates could have provided the votes to restore funding to UNFPA, but instead, they were out campaigning.

Last week I indulged in a daydream in which global women's health was part of the national dialogue. On Thursday, the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill came up for a vote on the Senate floor like a splash of cold water on my face.

The Senate usually passes a huge foreign ops bill without an amendment relating to UNFPA funding which allows the President to withhold our contribution to UNFPA. The Senate prefers to let the House do the dirty work of having an amendment – known as Kemp-Kasten – that permits the President to de-fund UNFPA.

Since we have a newly supportive majority in the Senate, we thought we would finally have a victory to celebrate. But the Senate did not allow this year's House Kemp-Kasten language to stand. Instead, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas – who is running for President – introduced an amendment to open up the same loophole that has allowed President Bush to de-fund UNFPA for five years in a row (actually six – we got that news on Friday). Senators Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, John McCain and Barack Obama – who are running for President – weren't on the floor when this vote was taken.

Brownback's amendment passed 48-45.

Since I work for a charity, a federal law prohibits me from telling you who votes how. But I think I'll risk telling you that four of the current crop of presidential candidates are supporters of UNFPA and could have changed the outcome of that vote.

Last week I imagined a debate in the not-too-distant future in which the moderator asked, "Senator, if elected, would you restore funding to UNFPA to assist in global efforts to promote women and reduce poverty?" Now I have to re-imagine my question: "Senator, what were you doing that you missed the vote to renew U.S. participation in the largest international effort to prevent maternal mortality, the spread of HIV and promote family planning and girls' access to contraception?"

I already know the answer. "I was out campaigning to ensure that I will be elected President because I can do much more good for the women of the world as President than I can as a Senator."

That sounds logical and rational and like something you could maybe let slide. But I'm weary of that excuse. For the first time in six years, UNFPA has a supportive majority in both houses of Congress and, given the support of the American people for this kind of work, there is no reason why that Senate vote on UNFPA should have been lost.

There's still hope for that national dialogue I dream of. The Foreign Operations bill still has to go through conference committee, even though it's been established that the President will veto the bill. The President's stated reason will likely be the inclusion of language that eliminates the Global Gag Rule. (UNFPA is not subject to the GGR.) I fear that the withholding of $40 million for UNFPA from a $20 billion appropriations bill will get about as much attention from the Presidential candidates as…well as much attention as it already has.

For the sake of women everywhere, let's hope our Presidential candidates prove me wrong.