Congressional Republicans are aiming to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood early next year, according to GOP sources on and off the Hill, as social conservatives press for a milestone win under Donald Trump’s presidency after years of thwarted attempts to defund the health care group.
While the Senate passed a budget bill in late 2015 that eliminated federal money for Planned Parenthood and also repealed Obamacare, President Barack Obama vetoed the measure in early January. But with Trump in the White House next year, conservatives say it’s just a matter of time before a defunding bill becomes law.
“The entire movement is poised for a victory,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an advocacy group that opposes abortion. “We have every assurance [from congressional leaders] that it’s going to happen. Nobody is saying ‘whether,’ the question is ‘when.’”
If successful, this latest push would be the single biggest victory for anti-abortion groups in years, and likely the first step in a broader agenda aimed at sharply curtailing abortion procedures. Federal law already bars Planned Parenthood from using taxpayer funds for abortions — the group uses the money for family planning and other health services. But anti-abortion groups insist the funding facilitates abortion by freeing up other funds for abortion services.
After Planned Parenthood, advocates are expected to take aim at banning abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy and making the Hyde amendment — which bans the use of federal money for abortions — permanent. But even with Republicans in control of all the levers of government, those goals face much longer odds. At the same time, they’re going to be marshaling forces to help ensure the confirmation of a conservative Supreme Court justice, to replace Antonin Scalia, who died in February of 2016.
More immediately, Republicans and their allies are considering a procedure early next year that would neuter Democratic resistance before it’s even begun. Anti-abortion advocacy groups are lobbying Republicans to make the defunding provision part of an Obamacare repeal, and pass the whole thing using a fast-track budget procedure that would block any Democratic filibuster. Using that so-called budget reconciliation procedure would mean Republicans could have the package on Trump’s desk within weeks of his inauguration.
In interviews, Republican sources said it will be difficult to back away from defunding Planned Parenthood, particularly after the Senate successfully slipped a defunding provision into the Obamacare repeal bill last year using the same reconciliation procedure. And while they lost two Senate seats on Election Day, meaning they only have 52 GOP seats to work with next year, Senate Republicans likely have the votes to repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood. The House would be expected to easily approve the bill.
Planned Parenthood has promised that it won’t close its doors, even if the GOP succeeds. The bill approved by Republicans in 2015 essentially cut Planned Parenthood out of Medicaid — where the majority of its funding comes from — but preserves the money it gets through the Title X family planning program originally signed into law in 1970 by Richard Nixon.
Republicans say no final decision has been made about what they’ll do next year, although one GOP congressional aide said that among conservatives “there is an expectation that it will be included in any reconciliation bill.” But if the Obamacare repeal legislation runs into any roadblocks because it includes defunding Planned Parenthood, the provision could be cut.
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said the legislative schedule has not been set for next year, noting that “it’s November 2016.” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said last week that “we’ve already shown what we believe with respect to funding Planned Parenthood. We put a bill on Obama’s desk in reconciliation. Our position has not changed.”
“Speaker Ryan is in near-daily communication with President-elect Trump and Vice President-elect Pence about the agenda for next year. We will share more when we have it,” added Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong.
While lawmakers may be shying away from firm commitments, outside groups are confident.
Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life, said it would be a “huge step forward — a sign that things are going in the right direction.”
“It’s the symbolism of saying that our government isn’t going to promote or in any way add to the credibility of an organization that kills 300,000 babies every year,” she said.
Eliminating Planned Parenthood’s approximately $550 million in federal funding — most of it through Medicaid — would be abortion opponent’s most tangible victory since 2007, when the Supreme Court upheld a ban on so-called partial birth abortions.
That would mean low-income women in Medicaid wouldn’t be able to go to Planned Parenthood for cancer screenings, contraception or other health services unrelated to abortion. Republicans say they will redirect the funding that would have gone to Planned Parenthood to community health centers, which do not provide abortion.
Another potential wrinkle for the GOP: The 2015 bill defunded Planned Parenthood for only one year and it’s unclear whether Republicans can make that prohibition permanent.
A Planned Parenthood spokesperson referred POLITICO to a statement from the group’s president, Cecile Richards, issued immediately after Trump’s victory.
“We will fight to make sure that Planned Parenthood health center doors stay open, and that people in this country can get access to basic reproductive health care, no matter their zip code, income, sexual orientation, race, religion, gender, or country of origin,” she said in that post-election statement. “The majority of Americans, including Trump’s own voters, support access to health care at Planned Parenthood and want abortion to stay legal and safe.”
Trump has pledged to sign a bill defunding the organization — although he also said during the campaign that the organization does good work, a point Democrats intend to remind him of often if the GOP purses defunding.
Trump “should know that Democrats, along with millions of women and men nationwide who rely on Planned Parenthood for their health care, don’t want politics impacting their doctor’s visit, and believe that women should be able to make their own choices about their own bodies, are watching and are going to hold him accountable,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ascending No. 3 Democratic leader.
The move to defund could backfire politically for Republicans. A recent POLITICO/Harvard poll found that the majority of American voters — 58 percent — want to continue to allow Planned Parenthood to access government funds. Even self-described Trump voters were evenly split on the issue — 48 percent want to keep funding for Planned Parenthood and 47 percent want to end it. Predictably, Democratic voters were much more supportive.
Democrats on Capitol Hill say they’re ready for the fight, although there may be little they could do if Republicans remain committed to pairing Obamacare repeal with defunding.
“I’m confident that [the public] understands that the money they receive is not for abortions. It is for helping people avoid unwanted pregnancies. I mean, the way to create more abortions is to defund Planned Parenthood,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who could face a tough reelection fight in 2018. “I imagine we’ll all be on speed dial to Ivanka [Trump]. Don’t you think she and Melania [Trump] are the ones telling him he’s lost his mind to defund Planned Parenthood? I’m pretty sure they are.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) opposed using the reconciliation tactic to defund Planned Parenthood and repeal Obamacare in 2015. Another moderate, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), supported it. But she also introduced an amendment with Collins to strike the Planned Parenthood provision, indicating that she had reservations about cutting off funding.
If Republicans have to scrap the Planned Parenthood provision to repeal Obamacare, conservatives will likely look to Trump to use the White House to restrict using government money for the group.
“An interesting consideration will be what the president can do via executive order or legitimate administrative action that restricts [Planned Parenthood] funding in lieu of a rider, if dropping the rider is needed to get the votes,” said a source who works with conservatives in Congress.
Anti-abortion activists are confident they won’t have to rely on regulations though.
“This went through last year so I have no doubt that pro-life Republicans are going to be pushing it through again,” Tobias said. “There would be no reason not to, especially now that Planned Parenthood is talking about the new donations they’ve gotten” after the election.
Dannenfelser says anti-abortion groups will woo Democrats, particularly those hailing from conservative states who are up for reelection in 2018. Two Democrats — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana — have voted to defund Planned Parenthood in stand-alone bills in the past. But both voted against Obamacare repeal in 2015. Though Susan B. Anthony List has helped elect many Republican senators, Dannenfelser said her group would consider endorsements of Manchin and Donnelly if they vote with Republicans on Planned Parenthood and other abortion-related issues.
Democrats on Capitol Hill scoffed and said their party could be energized by attempts to pass socially conservative legislation early next year.
“That’s a fight Democrats would relish. Doubling down on President-elect Trump’s contention that women should be punished for abortion and putting their extreme views into action would be a huge misstep on their part,” said a senior Democratic aide.
Gutting federal funding for the women’s health organization would go a long way toward uniting the disparate factions of the GOP under a President Trump. And with Congress and the White House under GOP control, there will be an appetite to immediately capitalize on some conservative wants.
The vast majority of the Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill have rallied around defunding Planned Parenthood since the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress released a series of sting videos alleging that Planned Parenthood illegally trafficked fetal tissue, an allegation the group denied. But it wasn’t always that way: when the idea of defunding Planned Parenthood first circulated by now Vice President-elect Mike Pence in 2011, several Republicans in the House defected.
In a letter in September, Trump vowed to help divert Planned Parenthood’s funding to other health organizations if the group continues to fund abortions. He also vowed to sign a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and make permanent the prohibitions on taxpayer-funded abortions. All three issues came up in 2015, with Obama vetoing attempts to slash Parenthood Funding and Senate Democrats blocking expansions of the Hyde Amendment and new abortion restrictions.
Republicans said that they will continue to prohibit taxpayer funding of abortions in government funding bill but passing a 20-week abortion ban will prove much trickier: Senate Republicans would likely have to change the Senate rules to pass such legislation by a simple majority, and many senior senators say they are unlikely to do so. Activists are pressing for another vote, which failed in 2015, but Dannenfelser said that actually passing it would be a “reach.”
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