Rand Paul is trying to steal back the spotlight in the fight against Planned Parenthood.
Paul, seeking to regain his spot as a top GOP presidential candidate, says he has a plan to let Congress defund Planned Parenthood without making him seem like he is beating the drum for a government shutdown as much as other Republicans.
Paul says legislation continuing federal funding of Planned Parenthood should be voted on separately from the continuing resolution that would keep the government open past Sept. 30. Separating the votes, he says, forces the Senate to find 60 votes in support of the organization rather than against it.
“Some are saying there’s not enough votes to defund Planned Parenthood. Another way to look at it is, are there enough votes to fund Planned Parenthood?” Paul told reporters Thursday. “The test shouldn’t always be 60 votes to defund, it should be 60 votes to fund.”
But of course, that would mean Planned Parenthood funding still would not appear on a spending bill, exactly what Cruz and other conservatives are calling for. Even if such a bill miraculously passed through the Senate, it would be met with a presidential veto. And that could lead to a government shutdown that Republican leadership in both chambers is steadfastly saying should not and will not happen again.
Paul has a solution to that, too: Blame the Democrats.
“If the Democrats object to it, if the Democrats want to shut down the government, so be it,” Paul said.
The fight to defund Planned Parenthood comes after the release of a series of videos that allegedly depict the organization selling fetal tissue, which is illegal. Planned Parenthood says it only charges overhead costs—legally—for tissue donated to medical research.
Paul pitched his plan to a slightly underwhelming crowd of antiabortion advocates at a rally on the Capitol lawn Thursday, joining them as they advocated for defunding Planned Parenthood. Even then, he was standing in Cruz’s shadow: Sarah Palin, who also attended the rally, addressed onlookers and supported Paul a day after doing the same for Cruz against the Iran deal.
Cruz has been circulating a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell encouraging him to take a hard stance on Planned Parenthood around the Senate, attempting to find other lawmakers to crusade against the establishment with him. He has not yet sent the letter to McConnell, and it is unclear whether he has any cosigners.
“In light of recent and horrific revelations that Planned Parenthood is trafficking in fetal tissue and body parts from abortions, we urge you not to schedule or facilitate the consideration of any legislation that authorizes or appropriates federal dollars for Planned Parenthood,” Cruz writes in the letter.
This is not the first time Paul and Cruz have gone head-to-head in a race to seem the most activist against Planned Parenthood. In July, they both submitted amendments to highway legislation that would defund the organization. To get the bipartisan legislation passed, McConnell did not allow either amendment to show up on the bill.
Instead, the majority leader created a working group of Republicans to write separate defunding legislation, strategically headed by Sen. Joni Ernst. Paul was included in the group, taking a lead role; Cruz was not. The stand-alone bill failed with a vote of 53-46 in early August.
Conservatives, including Cruz, say it’s not enough to have a show vote to defund Planned Parenthood or to wait until 2017, when a new president will be in the office. Leadership, on the other hand, learned from 2013, when Cruz triggered a shutdown over the Affordable Care Act and Republicans shouldered the blame.
“The goal here is not to shut down the government. The goal is to stop these horrific practices of organizations selling baby parts,” said House Speaker John Boehner in a news conference Thursday morning. McConnell also will not entertain the idea of a government shutdown.
In the Senate, Cruz and now Paul are the only members who seem to be publicly calling for Republicans to take as hard of a stance as needed on the issue. In the House, however, a growing number of lawmakers have signed onto a letter pledging to oppose any legislation funding the organization.
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Caitlin Owens is a health care reporter at National Journal. Her work has previously appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.