In a year when spending, deficits and debt have dominated the national debate, the recent push to strip Planned Parenthood of government funding is a reminder that the abortion issue retains its political potency.
The decades-old battle nearly derailed the latest spending deal on Capitol Hill, and House Republicans say they'll continue to fight federal funding of the group after Congress returns from a two-week break to tackle the nation's borrowing limit, 2012 spending levels and the soaring national debt.
"We believe very strongly that government dollars shouldn't be used to fund abortion. I believe that is where the majority of the American people are and we will make sure that we continue in the spirit of the Hyde Amendment, governmentwide," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, told reporters this month, referring to the 1976 law that bans the use of federal funds for abortions.
As part of the 2011 spending deal, the Democrat-controlled Senate agreed to hold an up-or-down vote on defunding Planned Parenthood, a measure that sailed through the House only to die in the Senate largely along partisan lines. Republican Sens. Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Olympia J. Snowe and Susan M. Collins, both of Maine, joined their Democratic counterparts.
The vote has handed advocates on opposite sides of the battle new ammunition to use against their political foes in the 2012 elections, where Republicans hope to capture the U.S. Senate and oust President Obama.
"Votes have consequences, especially for politicians who say one thing at home and do another in Washington when it comes to protecting life," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group.
The group is planning radio ads targeting Senate Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Robert P. Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
"The SBA List promised to watch closely as vulnerable senators cast these important votes, and we are following through," she said. "Constituents in Pennsylvania, Nebraska and Missouri will hold these politicians accountable for their votes."
Christopher Bond, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP's campaign arm, included Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, on that list. "This will certainly be an issue for them as they seek re-election, and they will have a very difficult time explaining this disconnect to their states' voters," he said.
But Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said that since House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and "his allies abandoned the jobs agenda to launch an unprecedented war on women, we have heard from hundreds of thousands of Americans who are fired up and ready to take action."
"We will ensure that lawmakers who signed on to this extreme and divisive agenda continue to hear from outraged Americans through petitions, phone calls, protests and, most importantly, at the ballot box in 2012," Ms. Keenan said.
Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats' campaign arm, said GOP members of the House will be held accountable for "nearly shutting down government, all to advance their radical social agenda."
As the nation's largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood has become a familiar target of social conservatives and religious groups. Pro-life activists argue that the federal government shouldn't give Planned Parenthood any federal funding because the support frees up funds to finance abortion services. According to its annual report, $363 million of the group's $1.1 billion budget comes from government grants.
Pro-choice Democrats point out that federal law already prohibits the federal funding of abortion and that the organization provides important family planning services to women. They also say the GOP is wrong to insert the divisive social issue into spending debates, especially when funding for the group represents a drop in the bucket compared with the nation's trillion-dollar deficits and $14.3 trillion debt.
Still, as potential nominees jockey for position in the 2012 Republican primaries, Planned Parenthood funding is expected to be part of the conversation, perhaps more so now that GOP lawmakers are couching the defunding effort in fiscal rather than social terms.
"Republicans understand that there is still a contingent of devoted voters who back their party primarily due to social issues," said Isaac Wood of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "To keep those voters flocking to the polls and volunteering their time and money to the GOP, Republicans need to throw them a bone now and then."
"The risk for Republicans was not that voters particularly wanted to fund Planned Parenthood, but rather that they saw the GOP as putting their social priorities ahead of fiscal issues," Mr. Wood said.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, predicted that vulnerable Democrats from conservative-leaning states could "pay dearly" if they oppose the effort to defund Planned Parenthood.
"I think it may cost them a couple Senate seats," he said.
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