In a borderline show of strength, House Republicans Thursday barely beat back efforts by Democrats to redirect $75 million in funds destined for the Colombian military. The vote, on an amendment to the $17 billion foreign aid appropriations bill, was 226-195, leaving opponents of US support for Colombia's embattled government just 16 votes short of victory. The foreign aid appropriations bill passed on a vote of 370-50.
The amendment, sponsored by Reps. Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Ike Skelton (D-MO) would have stripped more than 10% of the $731 million in Andean anti-drug assistance that the Bush administration requested and used the money to support President Bush's announced but under-funded global AIDS initiative. Beginning with the Clinton administration in the late 1990s, the US government has thrown more than $2 billion to the Colombian military and national police. At first, the money was directed solely toward anti-drug efforts, but last year the Bush administration removed that restriction, paving the way for explicit US involvement in Colombia's multi-sided civil war.
Nine members of Congress delivered eloquent attacks on the administration's Andean policy. They included McGovern and Skelton, along with Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Janice Schakowsky (D-IL), David Obey (D-WI), Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Nita Lowey (D-NY), and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). Reps. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the House Minority leader, and Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) did not speak, but had worked to rally support for the amendment. Five congressmen spoke against the amendment, including rabid drug warriors Rep. James Kolbe (R-AZ), John Mica (R-FL), Cass Ballenger (R-NC) and Mark Souder (R-IN), as well as the usually reform-minded William Delahunt (D-MA).
The actual vote reflected the partisan split evident in the debate. Of the 196 votes for cutting the Colombia aid, only 12 came from Republicans. And of the 226 votes to keep the aid, only 17 came from Democrats.
While unable to win the vote on the McGovern-Skelton amendment, opponents of the Colombia aid pronounced themselves satisfied with the growing opposition to administration policy in the region. "I'm actually optimistic, considering that the administration has been playing the whole 'narcoterrorism' thing and screaming 'terrorists' at the top of their lungs," said Sanho Tree, director of the Institute for Policy Studies' Drug Reform Project. "It was impressive that so many members of Congress stood up to that," he told DRCNet.
"The debate was excellent and advanced our cause," said Eleanor Starmer of the Latin America Working Group (http://www.lawg.org), an umbrella organization of more than 60 social justice, human rights, and other groups working to shift US policy toward Colombia. "The nine members who spoke in support of the amendment were able to get the message across that Plan Colombia has not achieved any of those goals set out in 2000," she told DRCNet. "They pointed out that drug production has not decreased, only shifted back to Bolivia and Peru; they pointed out the ongoing links between the Colombian army and the paramilitaries; and they pointed out that when Plan Colombia was first passed, its goal was to decrease drug abuse in the United States, which has not happened."
With Secretary of State Colin Powell and House Majority Leader Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) lobbying hard against the amendment and playing the "narcoterrorism" card, some Republicans who were sympathetic ended up voting against the amendment, Starmer said.
"The whole 'narcoterrorism' thing is a very effective political construct," said Tree. "They can not only bait someone as soft on drugs, but as soft on terrorism. But there is no such thing as 'narcoterrorism.' People get involved in the drug trade because it's so profitable," he said, "and so do the belligerents in Colombia. You don't call Appalachian pot farmers 'narco-hillbillies;' it doesn't add anything, and this 'narcoterrorism' talk does not help us understand either the phenomenon of terrorism or that of drug trafficking. In fact, the Bush administration's policies will aggravate both."
Still, said Starmer, the specter of "narcoterrorism" is not as effective as it was last year. "It was tough to oppose last year when they expanded the mission from drug suppression to include anti-terrorism, but this week it was fundamentally a debate over drug policy instead of an argument over how terrorist is the FARC," she pointed out. "The Democrats have been able to turn this around, especially when they can ask why we're funding a government that collaborates with groups on the State Department's terrorism list," Starmer added, alluding to the close ties between the Colombian military and the right-wing paramilitary forces. "This is a very contentious issue in Congress," said Starmer, "and this was hotly debated." Still, she said, that is probably it on Colombia in Congress until next year.
Maybe that's a good thing for President Bush, Tree suggested. "Bush has bitten off more than he can chew. He's sinking into three different quagmires -- Afghanistan, Iraq, and Colombia -- and he's got a declining political base and a declining tax base. He can't pay for all this. He's running huge deficits." Perhaps, as with the states, which are cutting prison sentences because they can't afford them, it is the cost that will end this policy, said Tree. "Fiscal conservatives will ultimately tip the balance," he predicted.
Visit http://www.drcnet.org/wol/july23-yesno.xls to download an Excel spreadsheet -- which you can sort by state, district, Rep's name, party and votes -- containing the results for the medical marijuana and Plan Colombia votes. Visit http://www.drcnet.org/wol/july23-yesno.pdf for the same document in PDF format, sorted by state then district number.