Gayle Smith, U.S. President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development, still awaits confirmation. Photo by: Laura Elizabeth Pohl / Bread for the World / CC BY-NC

In April, Gayle Smith was nominated by U.S. President Barack Obama to serve as the next administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the world’s largest bilateral development agency. But she must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate before taking on the role, and sources close to the process tell Devex that Smith’s confirmation is in trouble.

The pushback stems from a questionnaire Smith filled out for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Included was a query about the Helms amendment, a four-decade piece of legislation sponsored by the late Sen. Jesse Helms that prohibits the use of foreign aid dollars for abortion-related programming. Smith’s reply was, according to sources who wish to remain confidential due to sensitive ongoing negotiations, seen by Republican senators as noncommittal.

“We were all set and submitted all the questions for the record,” Susan Reichle, counselor to USAID, told Devex. “Then some questions were raised about the Helms amendment, and so it was postponed and that’s what we’re waiting on, for another business meeting before the recess [next month].”

Smith’s response comes at a delicate moment for reproductive rights groups, some of which revealed to Devex they’ve been working closely with the White House about changing how Helms is enforced in U.S. foreign aid programs.

According to Jamila Taylor, senior policy adviser at Ipas, one such group, the White House is considering bringing the enforcement of the amendment in line with practices at the federal level, namely permitting funds for abortions in cases of rape, incest and life-threatening pregnancy complications; equipment and medications for post-abortion care; and counseling and education about local abortion restrictions.

Even in countries where abortion is legal, current U.S. policy prohibits programming that offers information on abortion options available to citizens, something that could be changed by the administration.

While in prior years talks around Helms might have escaped Congress’ attention, Republicans in the U.S. Senate are particularly attuned to this issue as they see the Obama administration using so-called executive action of this kind to address issues like climate change and immigration without congressional approval.

Smith had a speedy and relatively smooth hearing June 17 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but multiple sources indicated to Devex that Florida senator and presidential hopeful Marco Rubio noted her questionnaire response and raised it with other Republican members of the committee. This resulted in a postponement of an initial business meeting, originally scheduled for late June but now slated for later this month.

While Smith would lack the power as USAID administrator to change how the amendment is enforced, Republican senators may be using her confirmation process to secure assurances from the White House that Smith’s stance does not signal a possible executive order or memorandum on how Helms is enforced, a move that would likely garner significant opposition among Republican lawmakers.

Already, conservative groups, including the Family Research Council, have submitted letters to Republican senators urging Smith’s confirmation be blocked because of the issue. Should Smith make it out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, attention to a hot-button issue like abortion in the runup to a presidential election could lead a pro-life senator to put a hold on her confirmation.

“The USAID mission has long enjoyed strong bipartisan support across the political spectrum,” White House assistant press secretary Frank Benenati told Devex. “Making [Smith’s confirmation] a political issue will leave urgent global challenges untended and would undermine a bipartisan consensus on development that many have worked for years to build.”

Reproductive rights groups Devex has spoken with confirm that the Obama administration has been considering changes to enforcement of the Helms amendment for more than a year. Taylor shared with Devex her impression that the White House has been hoping to alter how it enforces the four-decade law “as a final push for this administration to effect change in reproductive rights.”

Now, sources from both sides of the aisle say, Smith is caught in the heightened environment of a presidential election year between an outgoing administration considering an update to the enforcement of Helms as a valedictory achievement and Republican senators determined to stand fast on a core issue for their party. And with just 18 months left in the Obama administration, delays to her confirmation would leave even less time for Smith to effect change at the agency.

Because the power to modify U.S. policy on Helms “lies solely with the U.S. president, the focus on Smith’s stance on Helms could mean needlessly cutting into Smith’s time at USAID when she could be institutionalizing some of the administration’s initiatives,” Dilly Severin, director of communications at Population Action International, told Devex.

Reproductive rights advocacy groups like Planned Parenthood and Population Action International spoke out as recently as February urging the president to reinterpret Helms. And more than 120 organizations sent a letter to the U.S. Senate last month declaring support for Smith, a former aid worker and journalist who is currently special assistant to the president and senior director for development and democracy at the National Security Council. The standoff over her confirmation creates a sensitive situation for many development organizations who want to see both a confirmed leader at USAID and expanded reproductive rights.

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About the author

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.