Congress's Female Caucus Grapples With Diversity

Members share commitment to women's issues, fall out over abortion

THEY both have about three dozen Democratic House members. They both fight for liberal causes. They both represent demographic groups on the political rise.

And, when President Clinton's budget-deficit plan goes for a vote in Congress, he will need support from both blocs - especially given the unlikelihood that any Republicans will back him.

So why does the Congressional Black Caucus seem to wield more clout than the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues? Good question, women members say.

The obvious difference is diversity. The 38-member black caucus has one Republican; the women's caucus has 36 Democrats and seven Republicans, and functions in a more bipartisan way. Thus, the black caucus has had free rein to state its "nonnegotiable" demands for the budget plan, while the women's caucus has taken no formal stand.

Also, black-caucus members tend to represent poorer districts, while the women are spread more evenly among rich, middle-class, and poor, urban, suburban, and rural. (Five GOP women don't belong to the caucus, for reasons including its pro-choice stance.)

"We are not a homogeneous group," says Rep. Olympia Snowe of Maine, the GOP co-chair of the women's caucus. "But the fact that the caucus works well together should be an example of our political maturity."

Rep. Pat Schroeder of Colorado, the group's Democratic co-chair, says the women's caucus often works and votes with the black caucus. Last week, the president met with Democratic women and the black caucus.

"I think [the administration] sees us as important," Ms. Schroeder says. "Maybe we haven't been as publicly confrontational."

The Democratic women may be more effective if they were to organize a formal bloc separate from the bipartisan caucus, say Democratic women who have discussed the idea. Rep. Barbara Kennelly (D) of Connecticut, the only woman in the House leadership, says the dramatic increase in women's membership - two-thirds more than in the last Congress, with 21 of 24 newcomers Democratic - means that the time is ripe for a separate Democratic women's caucus. "We should start one next year," she says.

Meanwhile, some Democratic women are raising their voices outside the caucus to influence the budget conference. Freshman Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D) of Georgia got six other women to sign a recent letter to Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois, the most important Democrat in the conference, urging adequate funding for four social programs: the Family Preservation Act, children's immunization, a tax break for the working poor, and expansion of the food-stamp program.

If they wanted to, House Democratic women could play tough on the budget conference to ensure, as the black caucus wants, that social programs are adequately funded.

"If the women operate in a bloc, they really have an extraordinary amount of power," says an aide to Mr. Rostenkowski.

Rep. Eva Clayton (D) of North Carolina shows some ambivalence about how the women's caucus functions. The women are "not as unified, and I wish they were a little more," she says. "But I'm not sure, in the final analysis, that's all unhealthy. It just means you're not as effective! I think it's healthy to have several issues," But she adds: "I think it's smart and effective out of those diverse issues to focus and set some prioritization."

Of four items on the caucus's agenda - equity in economic opportunity, health, education, and safety - women's health is hottest; of all caucus task forces, it has the most members. And it is basically a bipartisan issue.

The tough part will be on abortion. Ironically, just as the caucus has adopted a "pro-choice" stance, the term is becoming ambiguous. For some, it means easy access to abortion for anyone; for others, it means that abortion is legal but restricted, including a ban on federal funding.

Five women from the caucus voted June 30 in favor of the so-called Hyde Amendment banning federal funding of abortions. But Mr. Clinton has promised to put federal abortion funding in his health-care-reform package. That provision threatens to sink the plan and, therefore, could be bargained away by the president.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D) of New York, head of the caucus's pro-choice task force, orchestrated a bipartisan letter July 17 to Hillary Rodham Clinton signed by 33 caucus women urging "a comprehensive reproductive-health-care benefit" in the package - including abortion services.

The abortion-as-part-of-health-care debate will be a key test of the women's caucus's clout. Just as the dismantling of the House Select Committee on Children, Families, and Youth has forced family advocates to promote their issues in many contexts around Congress, so too the women's caucus cannot afford to compartmentalize its issues, members say.

Ms. Kennelly says: "We have to be careful that men don't abdicate on women's issues."

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