Abortion Politics the Biggest Obstacle to Keeping the Government Open

GOP leaders hope that separate bills on abortion and Planned Parenthood will mollify conservatives, but the path to avoiding a shutdown remains murky.

Congressional Republican leaders will take their first hopeful steps this week toward avoiding a government shutdown over federal funding for Planned Parenthood, bringing up freestanding bills aimed at cracking down on abortion.

Yet with conservatives insisting that the issue be addressed in a spending bill, and some hinting at harsh repercussions for Speaker John Boehner if he backs down, it remains unclear how Republicans will keep the issue from coming to a head at the end of the month. After honoring Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and hosting the Pope’s first-ever address, Congress will have little time to agree on a short-term funding fix by the end of the month.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced Friday that the House will vote on two bills targeting Planned Parenthood. One would place a one-year moratorium on federal funding to affiliates of the group that conduct abortions. The other would impose criminal penalties on medical providers who do not provide care for a baby who survives an abortion.

The legislation comes in response to several videos that claim to depict Planned Parenthood representatives selling tissue harvested from aborted fetuses. The organization claims the videos misrepresent what is a legal practice of donating fetal tissue for research.

"Americans are rightfully outraged by what was depicted in these videos and Congress and the American people have a right to know exactly what is happening," McCarthy said. "These two critical bills will ensure that we will get all the facts and protect those who cannot protect themselves."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been adamant that he will not take any action resulting in a government shutdown, although McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said there are no details on the continuing resolution available yet. He also challenged the idea, as conveyed in a Politico story, that McConnell said he would back a plan to fund the government through December with no conditions.

“I don’t think he said no conditions. He did say that it wouldn’t work to shut down the government. But then, he’s said that for over a year,” Stewart said.

Instead, the Senate will bring up Sen. Lindsey Graham’s ban on late-term abortions, according to Sen. John Thune, the chamber’s No. 3 Republican. Leadership is hoping the vote will serve as a large enough anti-abortion victory to quell conservatives’ demands that federal funding for Planned Parenthood be removed from the spending bill, although it’s unclear exactly when the vote will occur. A Senate GOP aide said to expect Graham’s bill not this week but later in the month. Democrats are expected to block passage of the bill.

However, given that none of the bills are expected to be signed into law, the gestures are unlikely to put down conservatives’ calls to use the appropriations process to strip Planned Parenthood of its roughly $500 million in yearly federal funding. The conservative House Freedom Caucus announced last week that its members would not vote for a continuing resolution if it continues funding for the organization; Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas—both GOP presidential candidates—have said the same. And some members have been whispering about resuscitating a pending resolution to oust Boehner from the speakership if he does not fight for that outcome.

“Trying to coddle people and say, ‘Hey, you’re just getting your little vote on a bill that’s going nowhere,’—we know that’s not going to stop it,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp said. “The Speakership’s on the line here if he can’t stand for something [despite that] he claims to be 100 percent pro-life.”

House Republican leaders held three listening sessions with members on the topic last week and will continue to speak with their members this week. But for the time being, they have not decided whether to bring up a CR that strips Planned Parenthood funding. They are worried, sources said, that injecting shutdown politics into the battle will ultimately do more harm than good. And with McConnell warning that doing so would be fruitless, Republican leaders are wary of heading down a dead-end road.

But even conservatives who have vowed to oppose any bill giving Planned Parenthood aren’t convinced they will win. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who is leading the effort in the House, doubts the method will be successful in the end.

“The cynic in me says, ‘OK, we’ll pass a bill here that defunds Planned Parenthood. The Senate won’t take it up, and we’ll fold, because that’s what we’ve done the last four and a half years that I’ve been here.’ And that would be extraordinarily disappointing to me and to others,” he said.

Planned Parenthood isn’t the only obstacle to passing a spending bill. In the Senate, where Republicans must court Democratic votes to pass most legislation, Democrats are pushing for a CR that extends only through November 20, allowing time to negotiate a budget deal before Christmas, according to a senior Democratic aide. The aide said Democrats want three things out of the appropriations process: to address sequester spending cuts, to create a more equal ratio between defense and domestic spending and to eliminate poison pill riders.

Before the Senate becomes consumed over the spending fight, it will hold Tuesday a repeat vote on the Iran nuclear deal, with few expecting a different outcome. McConnell chided Democrats on Thursday after they blocked a vote on a disapproval resolution that would imperil the pact—signed by Iran and six global powers—by barring the administration from lifting congressional sanctions. “You guys will all be invited to the veto signing,” McConnell told Democrats. "Break out the champagne, celebrate, take credit for it. You own it."

Republicans acknowledge that the vote will likely deliver the same result as last week. "It always amazes me how compliant the [Democratic] caucus seems to be to what the leadership tells them,” Senate GOP Whip John Cornyn told reporters before the vote. "I can guarantee you as the whip on the Republican side, it doesn’t work that way on our side. We’ve always been more of a bottom-up caucus as opposed to top-down.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called the Iran vote "clear, decisive, and final."

With Iran legislation behind them, the House will wait for the president’s next move before deciding on its next move. Echoing his leadership, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce said Friday that if Obama begins to lift sanctions on Iran as planned Thursday, the House will likely sue the administration.