Conservatives Push to Defund Planned Parenthood

Conservatives Push to Defund Planned Parenthood
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Conservative members of the House of Representatives know they face long odds in their fight to strip Planned Parenthood of federal assistance by attaching the provision to a government funding measure.

A Continuing Resolution to fund the government, minus money for Planned Parenthood, would face stiff opposition from Senate Democrats and a veto from President Obama, which could force a government shutdown. The strategy has failed at least twice on other measures, once by shutting down the government for 17 days, giving Republicans a black eye. Even GOP leaders scoff at the idea as impractical and foolish. 

Yet many conservatives believe it's not only a fight worth waging, but one that represents a critical juncture for the Republican Party.

At issue is the nearly $500 million Planned Parenthood receives annually in federal funding. After a series of videos released this summer showed employees of the organization discussing the sale of fetal tissue for research, possibly for profit, pro-life advocates called for Congress to defund the organization, sending the money instead to community health centers that don’t provide abortions.

More than 30 conservative Republicans in the House, as well as Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, both presidential candidates, have pledged they will not support must-pass government funding legislation if it includes money for Planned Parenthood. Because Obama would veto legislation defunding Planned Parenthood if it reached his desk, this strategy risks a potential government shutdown. 

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, argued that the president’s veto threat shouldn’t have any impact on how lawmakers handle their business.

“So we’re going to make every decision … based on whether the president is going to sign the legislation or not?” he said at a gathering of conservative lawmakers last week. “That’s not our job.”

A Fight Worth Having

Republican leadership has pleaded caution, pointing to the failure of a 2013 government shutdown over efforts to defund Obamacare and saying this is a fight that cannot be won until a Republican is in the White House. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Politico last week it was “an exercise in futility.”

The leadership’s lack of appetite to take up the battle infuriated conservatives.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., told RealClearPolitics that McConnell’s statement was “gutless.” He added, “We’ve got a heck of a chance to get it done this year.”

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., called it a “defining issue for the Republican Party.” In an interview with RCP, Mulvaney pointed to comments from presidential candidate Carly Fiorina in which she said congressional leaders “should go” if they don’t wage the fight.

“That’s what everybody in the party is thinking except this small group within the leadership establishment in both the House and Senate,” Mulvaney said. “That’s why we’re having the fight. If Republicans can’t fight against the sale of dead baby parts, then we probably can’t fight for anything.”

Mulvaney, however, didn’t express much optimism.

“If John Boehner and Mitch McConnell would simply fight as hard for this as they fought for the Trade Promotion Authority, then we would have a chance,” Mulvaney said, referring to the fast-track trade authority signed into law earlier this year. “I am confident this is a cause worth fighting for, but I’m not confident it’s going to go our way in the end.” He called McConnell’s comments the practical end to the battle.

Others said they weren’t ready throw in the towel. “This is one issue where fiscal conservatives, social conservatives and all those who hate Washington come together and say you’ve got to do this one thing,” Huelskamp said. “It would be unbelievable if John Boehner and Mitch McConnell said no” to the Republicans pushing for this. 

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, admitted there was no easy path to success given the stark opposition from Democrats and the president. But like other conservative members, he insisted it’s a fight worth having. He told RCP that success would hinge on whether Republicans united and were “fully committed” to the fight to defund Planned Parenthood. Asked what it meant to fully commit, he said Republicans should point to the videos that have exposed Planned Parenthood practices and speak clearly and often about their goal.

“This is the old ‘picture’s worth a thousand words,’” Jordan said. “We have this group on videotape engaged in what we now know they’re doing. Everyone knows it’s wrong, everyone knows it’s repulsive and many of us think it might, in fact, be criminal. How can we continue to give them your tax dollars?”

Past Funding Fights

Many of the lawmakers pushing to defund Planned Parenthood by attaching it to government funding sought to do the same thing two years ago to Obamacare, a strategy that led to an unpopular government shutdown for more than two weeks, primarily blamed on Republicans. 

Earlier this year, they attempted to block Obama’s executive action delaying deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants via funding for the Department of Homeland Security. Both times, the Obama measures continued and conservatives lost the fight, both practically and in terms of messaging.

Will this time be any different?

Mulvaney doesn’t necessarily believe the outcome -- a negotiated deal with the White House and Democratic leadership to keep the government open -- will be different. But he argues the stakes have changed. 

“Folks understand that it was an uphill battle from the very beginning to defund Obamacare,” Mulvaney said. “They understand a little bit less why we struggled so mightily to defund the president’s amnesty. I don’t think many people understand why we can’t take a couple million dollars away from Planned Parenthood and give it to somebody else.”

Jordan called the 2013 Obamacare fight worthwhile, but said it failed because the message and strategy weren’t fully focused. When asked about the notion that Republicans bore the brunt of the blame for that shutdown, he made the point that Republicans gained seats in the House and took back control of the Senate in the 2014 midterms. 

He also said he thinks the argument this time around is much simpler, and the public is on their side. The American people, if they see those videos, they understand this is wrong,” he said. “They understand that this organization shouldn’t be getting taxpayer support. Simple.” 

Finding a Path Forward

GOP leadership has been looking for a way to defund Planned Parenthood without causing a costly shutdown. Leaders scheduled several “listening sessions” with their conference last week to strategize. Mulvaney called the sessions “very helpful” but said he didn’t think members had reached a consensus.

Republicans also discussed the issue at length during their weekly conference meeting last week, according to a source in the room. During that meeting, Boehner emphasized the role he and Congress have played in the pro-life movement and outlined recent victories he had won for pro-life causes. He didn’t rule out attaching Planned Parenthood defunding to a CR, but cautioned that it wouldn’t stop the practices that caused the debate in the first place and that a shutdown wouldn’t block Planned Parenthood’s funding. 

Emily Schillinger, a spokeswoman for Boehner, defended the speaker’s commitment to stopping Planned Parenthood’s use of fetal tissue. “The speaker is the most pro-life speaker in history, and no one wants to stop these barbaric practices more than he does,” Schillinger said. 

This week, the House will vote on two standalone measures on the issue. One is a bill by Tennessee Rep. Diane Black that would block Planned Parenthood funding for one year while the videos are investigated -- currently three House committees are looking into the matter. Second, House members will take up legislation by Arizona Rep. Trent Franks that would impose criminal penalties on doctors who don’t try to save an infant born alive after an abortion attempt. 

In the Senate, there will be a vote to ban abortions after 20 weeks, which passed the House earlier this year but is expected to fail to meet the 60-vote threshold in the upper chamber. 

While these efforts are unlikely to reach the president’s desk, let alone be signed by Obama, they are signs to conservatives that leadership is serious about the issue. But they may not be enough.

“Show votes and standalone votes that we know will never see the light of day might make us feel good, might allow us to go back home and pat ourselves on the back and try to win re-election, but it doesn’t change any outcomes,” Mulvaney said. “There is a piece of must-pass legislation -- that is, the CR. If we are going to change outcomes by defunding Planned Parenthood, it will be in that vehicle or not at all.”

The issue poses another challenge to Boehner’s leadership in a year when he has repeatedly had to find order in a fractured conference. In the summer, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina introduced a “motion to vacate the chair,” essentially a resolution to remove Boehner as speaker. While there was no action taken on it then, it could be brought up again. Members of the conservative Freedom Caucus, a group that has been a thorn in Boehner’s side on many issues, insist this is a critical test of his leadership.

Huelskamp said Boehner has less support among the conference now than in January, when more than two dozen Republicans voted against him as speaker. He said it would be “a political miscalculation for John Boehner to risk his speakership to send money to an entity that’s engaged in such vile behavior.”

Schillinger, Boehner’s spokeswoman, brushed off the criticisms. “Navigating tough challenges isn’t new to this leadership team,” she said. “He’s got wide support amongst our members, and he is not going anywhere.”

Boehner expressed personal disgust with the Planned Parenthood videos when they first came to light and has insisted on several occasions that he supports defunding the organization. “Taxpayers should not fund abortions, period,” he said last week at a press conference. “The goal here is not to shut down the government. The goal is to stop these horrific practices of an organization selling baby parts.”

Congress has just two weeks before the Sept. 30 deadline to fund the government, and not many of those days will be legislative days. The House was out of session Monday and Tuesday this week for Rosh Hashanah and will be out several days next week for Yom Kippur. Plenty of time next week will also be dedicated to Pope Francis’ historic address to Congress. The window for successfully completing budget negotiations is already narrow, and as it gets narrower, the likelihood of a government shutdown gets larger. 

Conservatives worry the opportunity to force a prolonged debate over Planned Parenthood narrows as well. “I think leadership is going to have to choose,” Mulvaney said last week at a gathering of conservative lawmakers. “Do they want it to be a talking point, or do they actually want to do something about it?”


James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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