Cruz's Planned Parenthood Strategy Will Backfire
Another year. Another looming deadline for funding the federal government. Another hot-button issue whipping conservatives into a froth.
In the fall of 2013 it was Obamacare. In December 2014 it was immigration. This year it’s Planned Parenthood. Some conservatives seem determined to bet the farm, and the federal government, on defunding the women’s health services provider.
Let’s put aside the political questions. Sure, I could tell you that the 2013 shutdown severely damaged the GOP brand; defiant conservatives will respond that Republicans won the 2014 midterms anyway. (Some have even convinced themselves that the shutdown helped.)
And I could tell you that polls show huge majorities support federal funding of Planned Parenthood. But conservatives retort the poll numbers are skewed because they fail to mention the details of the fetal tissue controversy or neglect to raise the possibility that other organizations could provide women’s health services unrelated to abortion in Planned Parenthood’s absence.
So let’s not prognosticate about where the political fallout will land. Let’s just talk hard numbers. Specifically, 218 and 60. That’s how many votes will be needed to pass legislation in the House and clear a filibuster attempt in the Senate.
Speaker John Boehner does not want to tie the Planned Parenthood matter to the Sept. 30 deadline to fund the next fiscal year of government operations, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has flatly rejected the tactic, saying, “We are not doing government shutdowns.”
Meanwhile, 18 House Republicans have planted their flag, declaring they will not vote for any spending measure that maintains Planned Parenthood funding. On the Senate side, presidential candidate and 2013 shutdown instigator Ted Cruz is trying again to make the issue a conservative litmus test, urging Republicans to make the matter “a decision of the president's and the president's alone whether he would veto funding for the federal government because of a commitment to ensuring taxpayer dollars continue to flow to what appears to be a national criminal organization.”
Cruz and his House allies could grow their numbers. But without leadership backing, they can’t unify their caucuses. The best they can do a cause a temporary shutdown by preventing Congress from passing a spending bill.
But such a result wouldn’t force resistant Republicans and Democrats to take up the banner of defunding Planned Parenthood. It would only force congressional Republicans to rely on Democratic votes to keep the government open.
In other words, instead of passing a Republican bill that cuts domestic spending, putting maximum pressure on President Obama to accept at least some of those cuts, congressional Democrats will be able to force Republicans into accepting either a budgetary status quo or further relief from the “sequester” cuts in the 2011 budget deal.
Republicans will have a hard enough time standing their ground. Part of their caucus is so committed to increased military spending that they are willing make concessions to the Democrats. The other part believes the need for spending cuts is urgent and even the military budget is no longer sacred. In March, Sen. Lindsey Graham admitted, “This is a war within the Republican Party.” But since Republicans could pass a budget resolution in the spring without Democrats – such resolutions are not laws, so the president doesn’t sign them and Senate minorities can’t filibuster them – they didn’t have to choose sides. The Republican budget pads the Pentagon and slashes social programs.
By September, however, at least one Democrat will have to enter the picture, the one with the veto pen. And unlike 2011, when the president and congressional Republicans were both saying that some deficit reduction was needed, Obama started the 2015 process with a higher bid. His budget proposal included an $80 billion spending increase, split evenly between military and domestic spending. That’s a position that could entice hawkish Republicans like Graham and Sen. John McCain.
Conservatives committed to smaller government have work to do if they want to steel Republicans for a tense standoff with Obama over whether the size of the budget should go up or down. If they shift the focus to Planned Parenthood, they risk losing on both fronts.
It is impossible for Republicans to defund Planned Parenthood over Obama’s veto. If these hard-right members of Congress refuse to accept that reality and withhold their votes for a bill that leaves Planned Parenthood alone, they leave Boehner and McConnell no choice but to strike a deal with Democrats and military-minded Republicans that could grow the size of government.
Conservatives have a “bright shiny object” problem: They become fixated with the outrage-du-jour and shove all other strategic considerations aside. Republican backbenchers decide it’s more important to show how hard they can shake their fists instead of giving their leadership maximum leverage for inevitable negotiations with Democrats.
It’s become common for conservatives to charge that Republican Party leaders have been “breaking their promises” by failing to fight Obamacare and deportation relief hard enough. But don’t conservatives also claim to be committed to reducing the size of the federal government? Isn’t smaller government what conservatism is fundamentally about? If throwing in the towel on a fight that is already lost amounts to a broken promise, then what should we call it when conservatives repeatedly prioritize lost causes that distract from their core mission?