House works to end Trump’s suspension of aid to Central America

The draft fiscal 2020 State-Foreign Operations spending bill would also provide funds reproductive health programs and international agencies

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., conducts a State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the State Department's budget request for Fiscal Year 2020 on March 27. Appropriators aim to restore aid funding to Central American countries in a 2020 spending bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House appropriators are trying to end a divisive suspension of foreign aid to Central America made by President Donald Trump, one of many provisions in a spending bill that would counter administration policy on a range of international issues.

The draft fiscal 2020 State-Foreign Operations spending bill released Thursday would also provide more money to reproductive health programs and international agencies.

The State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee is scheduled to mark up the measure on Friday.

The draft would direct a minimum of roughly $541 million to Central American countries and take away previous spending flexibility that the administration had in that area.

In March, the State Department, at the direction of the White House, suspended roughly $450 million in fiscal 2017 and 2018 development and humanitarian assistance to the three Northern Triangle countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Those three countries are the source in recent years of the overwhelming majority of asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants seeking to enter the U.S. through the southern border.

Overall, the House bill would appropriate $56.4 billion, or $2.2 billion more than enacted in fiscal 2019 and $13.7 billion more than the administration requested. The measure includes $8 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funding, which is not subject to budget caps.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., who also leads the State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee, touted the legislation for rejecting the administration’s request for sweeping foreign aid and diplomacy spending cuts while reaffirming “strong support for reproductive health, climate change, and multilateral assistance.”

The administration's decision to freeze aid to Central America was met with overwhelming criticism from outside experts, former government and military officials, Democrats and many senior Republicans including House Appropriations ranking member Kay Granger of Texas, House Foreign Affairs ranking member Michael McCaul of Texas, and Senate Foreign Relations Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Chairman Marco Rubio of Florida.

Earlier this week, more than 100 House Democrats wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging him to immediately lift the aid suspension, which they warned was jeopardizing the effectiveness of millions of previously invested U.S. foreign aid dollars meant to reduce the structural problems driving mass immigration: gang violence, endemic corruption and widespread poverty.

“Multiple programs that are demonstrating results — reducing violence at the local level, helping young people find jobs, and reducing the rates of malnutrition in rural areas — will be forced to close their doors,” the letter states.

Democrats flex policy muscles

While reestablishing foreign assistance to Northern Triangle countries has broad bipartisan support among lawmakers, Democrats used their control of the committee to change course throughout the foreign aid bill on Republican policies related to abortion access, support for international organizations and climate change.

The legislation would repeal the Trump administration’s expanded Mexico City policy, which prohibits any U.S. global health assistance funds from going directly or indirectly to nongovernmental organizations that provide abortions, abortion counseling or referrals. Additionally, the bill would bar any funding from prior fiscal years from being used to carry out the Mexico City policy and would end a prohibition on funding for the United Nations Population Fund. The bill would mandate that over $55 million be directed to the U.N. agency that provides reproductive health services.

A longstanding Republican ban against funding to the U.N. Green Climate Fund, which aims to help developing nations respond to global warming, would be removed in the fiscal 2020 bill though the legislation does not mandate any spending levels. It would however deny the administration funding to implement withdrawal from the Paris Climate agreement.

The legislation would provide over $2.1 billion for U.N. peacekeeping activities, allowing the U.S. to pay off arrears accumulated during the first two years of the Trump administration while fully funding current obligations.

Democrats would also fully fund the assessed Contributions to International Organizations account at $1.5 billion, or $160 million more than current levels and $1 billion more than the administration requested. The account is used to make annual payments to the 45 international organizations the U.S. is party to, including the United Nations, its affiliated agencies and other organizations such as NATO.

Additionally, the legislation provides nearly $647 million in voluntary U.S. contributions to U.N. organizations like UNICEF. That figure is approximately $308 million higher than fiscal 2019 levels and roughly $647 million more than the request.

The legislation fully funds annual foreign aid commitments to Israel and Jordan at $3.3 billion and $1.5 billion, respectively. In total, appropriators would provide $11.2 billion in enduring and OCO funding for International Security Assistance, which is $2 billion more than current levels.

Lawmakers also took a swipe at Saudi Arabia, which has become a popular recent target for bipartisan criticism. The legislation prohibits the use of any funds “to support the sale of nuclear technology” to Riyadh.

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