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Washington Roundup: Congress races on shutdown; CRS backs USAID reform; SCOTUS readies abortion case

A file photo shows the dome of the U.S. Capitol on Capitol Hill in Washington. The House passed a $1.2 trillion spending bill March 22, 2024, to fund the federal government through September, leaving the Senate with just hours to follow suit to avert a partial government shutdown. (OSV News photo/Larry Downing, Reuters)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — The House passed a $1.2 trillion spending bill March 22 to fund the federal government through September, leaving the Senate with just hours to follow suit to avert a partial government shutdown. The move angered some House Republicans, who indicated they may retaliate against House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La.

Also in Washington the same week, congressional lawmakers weighed in on the upcoming case before the U.S. Supreme Court considering regulations on mifepristone, a pill commonly used in first trimester abortion but also has become a prescribed treatment for early miscarriage care.

— Congress races to avert shutdown —

The House passed the funding measure in a 286-134 vote. Senate leadership sought to pass the legislation by 11:59 p.m. the same day before the funding expires; but without an agreement on a streamlined process, Senate rules may delay votes on the bill until March 24, which would create a temporary lapse in funding for parts of the government.

Advocacy groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, previously cautioned against a shutdown, urging lawmakers to come to an agreement and keep the government open. The U.S. bishops expressed concern about how a government shutdown could impact the poor and vulnerable, as well as ministry to U.S. military personnel.

The controversial Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., initiated an effort to oust Johnson for his cooperation in funding the government, arguing he “has shown he cannot stand up to the Democrats.”

Johnson countered in a statement, “House Republicans achieved conservative policy wins, rejected extreme Democrat proposals, and imposed substantial cuts while significantly strengthening national defense. The process was also an important step in breaking the omnibus muscle memory and represents the best achievable outcome in a divided government.”

— Lawmakers weigh in on upcoming abortion pill case —

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments March 26 in a case concerning mifepristone, the first major case involving abortion on its docket since the high court overturned its previous abortion precedent with the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision.

A coalition of pro-life opponents of mifepristone, which is the first of two drugs used in a medication or chemical abortion, previously filed suit in an effort to revoke the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the drug, arguing the government violated its own safety standards when it decreased regulations on the drug. The FDA has argued the drug poses little risk to the mother in the early weeks of pregnancy.

At a press conference March 21, coalition members behind that effort highlighted an amicus brief filed in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of 145 members of Congress, which argued “the FDA failed to follow Congress’ statutorily prescribed drug approval process to the detriment of patient welfare.”

Speaking at the conference, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a Catholic, argued that an improperly regulated abortion drug has the potential for physical harm to the women and girls who take it, separately from harm to the unborn child.

“Imagine getting this pill in the mail, without a doctor’s visit, and it’s an ectopic pregnancy,” Smith said as an example.

The House Pro-choice Caucus also filed an amicus brief in the case, arguing that if the court upholds the challenge “it would be effectively rolling back the clock on reproductive healthcare and overriding FDA’s robust scientific approvals process — with immediate and sweeping consequences in every state on the ability of patients to access mifepristone for safe abortion care and miscarriage management.”

The high court could issue its decision next summer amid the 2024 presidential campaign.

— CRS urges passage of bill to strengthen USAID’s work with local partners —

Catholic Relief Services, the international relief and development agency of the Catholic Church in the U.S., urged lawmakers to pass the Locally-Led Development and Humanitarian Response Act, bipartisan legislation that would grant the U.S. Agency for International Development greater authority to work with local partners, including granting USAID the ability to accept applications or proposals in languages other than English.

Bill O’Keefe, CRS executive vice president for mission, mobilization and advocacy, said in a statement that CRS “wholeheartedly supports the objectives of locally-led development and humanitarian response.” He said that “international assistance must include a shift to more direct funding and more genuine empowerment of local organizations as they implement, evaluate and lead their own development.”

O’Keefe argued that “humanitarian and development assistance are at a crossroads.”

“In one direction, we can continue to do what we have done for decades — underestimating and underinvesting in local organization, directing the vast majority of assistance to international organizations and international implementing partners,” he said. “In the other direction, we can seize momentum and advance more locally-led development and humanitarian response.”

O’Keefe said following the second path, “exemplified through this piece of legislation, will improve aid efficiency and effectiveness, lead to more sustainable programs and provide a foundation for more resilient systems.”

The bill was introduced in the House by Reps. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., and Cory Mills, R-Fla., and approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee March 20. Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Pete Ricketts, R-Neb., introduced the bill in the Senate.

In a statement, Coons said, “Development and humanitarian assistance programs are more effective and sustainable when local communities drive assistance goals and implementation.”

“After all, local communities often know best where resources are needed and how assistance can be implemented most effectively to meet local needs,” Coons said, adding the bill would “push a larger share of funding directly to local leaders, reduce burdens on local partners, and create incentives for USAID to strengthen projects led by local communities. I’m proud to introduce this bill with my colleagues and hope the Senate will swiftly take up our legislation.”

— SCOTUS declines trans teen custody dispute —

The Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of an Indiana couple who said their teen, who identifies as transgender, was wrongfully removed from their care. Jeremy and Mary Cox, Catholic parents in Anderson, Indiana, claimed their rights were violated over the removal of the now-adult teen from their home.

The Coxes, legal filings state, believe children should be raised based on their biological sex rather than chosen gender identity. Their brief said that although they believe that pronouns or names inconsistent with their biological sex are immoral, they agreed, as a sort of compromise, to call their child A.

But a case manager found the teen had an untreated eating disorder, that the Coxes pulled the still-minor teen from school and discontinued therapy, and that the teen was contemplating self-harm, as well as allegations the teen’s mother was verbally abusive toward her child, and that contributed to the eating disorder. The Coxes denied those allegations, which Indiana officials later conceded were unsubstantiated following an investigation.

The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the child’s removal from the home in October 2022 and found that the Coxes’ parental rights were not violated by the removal. The state’s high court declined to intervene.

“The parents have the right to exercise their religious beliefs, but they do not have the right to exercise them in a manner that causes physical or emotional harm to (their) child,” the appeals court said at the time. It added the case was an “extreme example,” and the “court’s decision to continue child’s removal was not a response to the parents’ acts or omissions relating to their beliefs regarding transgender individuals.”

Becket, a public interest firm involved in the case, stated in a March 21 explainer that the Coxes “remain committed to fighting for religious freedom and parental rights, to ensure that what happened to their family does not happen to others.”

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @kgscanlon.

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