House leaders are trying to stem a minor revolt against the omnibus appropriations bill by a group of antiabortion members concerned that the bill does not include strong enough conscience protections for health care providers.
The group is unlikely to sway ultimate negotiations over the massive spending bill, but the rift shows how sensitive the negotiations are, and portends more headaches for a Republican Congress next year from members being pressured by single-issue groups.
Reps. John Fleming and Joe Pitts, cochairmen of the Values Action Team, a group of antiabortion members, are threatening to withhold their votes if appropriators do not strengthen language in the bill banning funds from being used on abortion services.
Members of the group met separately with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers on Thursday and huddled with Majority Whip Steve Scalise on Wednesday to make their push. Pitts also spoke by phone with Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell before the Thanksgiving break.
The push comes in light of a standoff in California between Gov. Jerry Brown and institutions that do not want to provide abortion coverage. In August, Brown's Department of Managed Health Care reclassified abortion as a "basic health care service," meaning that it must be included in all state health plans.
That works around long-standing language in appropriations bills banning the use of federal funds to pay for abortion services. Members of Congress have been under pressure from the Conference of Catholic Bishops this year to update the language and even shut down the government if changes are not made.
Fleming said that the group asked Burwell to force California to change its stance on the issue.
"Burwell refuses to do anything about it, so we want to put strong language [in the spending bill] that establishes that it's absolutely against statute, and also ... the law would give a private right of action," Fleming said.
The language they are requesting would mimic that of a bill sponsored by Sen. David Vitter and Rep. Diane Black, a member of the Values Action Team. The amendment would force the government to honor conscience protections and allow institutions to take their own legal action if that is not honored, rather than leave such action up to HHS.
Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, however, has unequivocally stated that she would not accept a spending bill with stronger antiabortion language than the current statute. That means House leaders are unlikely to include the measure in their final package.
But Fleming said the effort to strengthen the antiabortion language will intensify next year, when Republicans control both chambers of Congress.
"We're not going to be giving leadership a pass anymore, at least beginning next year, because we're going to be able to get these to go through. And yes, the president can veto them, but at least we need to get it to his desk," he said.
In addition to Black, Fleming, and Pitts, members of the group include Reps. Andy Harris, Tim Huelskamp, and Chris Smith. Some or all of those members, and perhaps more, are likely to vote against the final spending bill if it does not include the antiabortion language.
House GOP leaders are already facing dozens of defections from their rank and file over objections that the spending bill will not do enough to stymie President Obama's executive action that will grant work visas to millions of undocumented immigrants.
The Values Action Team's push may not significantly change the final math leaders are dealing with in trying to wrangle votes for the bill. But it does mean they will need that many more Democratic votes to pass the omnibus.