Updated 2:17 p.m. EDT
In the late days of December, the Obama administration made a last-ditch attempt to protect Planned Parenthood from the incoming Republican Congress. On Thursday, the Senate voted to overturn the Obama administration’s regulation, lifting restrictions on how states treat abortion providers and clearing the way for Congress to take further action. The House had already passed the measure, and the Senate needed only a simple majority to get it through. When the vote came to a tie, Vice President Mike Pence cast the final ballot, taking Congress one step closer to taking money away from abortion providers.
Here’s how it all works. Since 1970, the federal government has made grants to organizations that provide family-planning services under Title X of the Public Health Service Act; it’s the only federal program “focused solely on providing family planning,” according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The federal government can give money directly to health-care organizations, or it can award grants to states, which hand out the cash as they see fit. Although federal funds, including Medicaid, generally can’t be used to pay for abortions, some Title X money goes to abortion providers: In 2011, NPR reported that roughly a quarter of those dollars go to Planned Parenthood affiliates.
Some states have moved to stop that from happening. According to the December HHS regulation, 13 states have “taken actions to restrict participation by certain types of providers” since 2011, making rules “based on reasons other than the providers’ ability to provide Title X services.” Those “reasons,” of course, have to do with abortion: States like Arkansas bar federal funds from going to family-planning clinics that also end pregnancies.
The Obama administration’s regulation was designed to make sure abortion providers could continue getting Title X money. It prohibits states from preventing money from going to certain organizations for reasons other than their ability to provide “Title X services.” These services might include counseling on contraception and STD prevention. Miscellaneous restrictions “hinder the program's statutory mission,” the regulation argues, and adversely affect women and families.
This regulation was always a clear target for Republican members of Congress. It was issued in late December of 2016, after Democrats had lost the election; it places restrictions on states; and it protects abortion clinics. Congress has the legal authority to overturn regulations it dislikes under certain conditions, and this one came up early in this year’s session: 10 days after Inauguration, a resolution was introduced to overturn the HHS rule. The House easily passed it in February. And on Thursday, the Senate passed it as well.
The Senate’s vote wasn’t nearly as straightforward as the House’s. There were two Republican defectors: Susan Collins of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Maine’s Angus King and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, both independents, also voted against it. No Democrats voted in favor of overturning the regulation. In the end, with 50 senators on each side and a simple majority needed to resolve the question, Vice President Pence was the one who decided it: As the president of the Senate, he has the authority to cast a vote in the case of a tie.
While the legislation has not yet been signed by the president, it seems clear that the White House supports it. After all, the second-in-command made a special trip to the Senate chambers just to see it through. This resolution doesn’t do anything to Planned Parenthood immediately, and future attempts could, unlike this bill, be subject to a Democratic filibuster. But it clears the way for more legislative action—and the inevitable attempts ahead to defund the abortion giant and other providers.
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