Some House Republicans say de-funding the reproductive health care organization Planned Parenthood is so important that it is worth risking a government shutdown, to try to force Democrats hand as the two sides try to reach an agreement on a budget for the remainder of 2011.
The issue is one of the final hurdles standing in front of the long-running spending debate Capitol Hill, where Republicans say the federal government shouldn't be sending taxpayer funds to Planned Parenthood because it is the nation's largest provider of abortions.
"The country's broke [and] the vast majority of Americans, whether they are pro-life or not, don't want their tax dollars being used to take the lives of unborn children," said Rep. Jim Jordan, chairman of the Republican Study Committee.
Pro-life and pro-choice forces have long battled on Capitol Hill over whether and how taxpayers should fund health and family planning services offered by groups such Planned Parenthood, which also offer abortion. Republican gains in last November's midterm elections only sharpened the debate, as a policy "rider" in the House-Republican-backed spending cuts bill had both sides digging in with just hours to go before a shutdown.
The measure to eliminate "any and all" of the more than $300 million in funding to Planned Parenthood Federation of America and 102 of its affiliates for the rest of the year was added to H.R. 1 in a separate vote earlier this year.
"I believe it's morally wrong to take the taxpayer dollars of millions of pro-life Americans and use it to fund organizations that provide and promote abortion, like Planned Parenthood," Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican and amendment sponsor, said in the Feb. 17 debate.
Democrats, though, argue the GOP is using the abortion provisioin to hold the rest of spending bill hostage to "ideology," risking a government shutdown in the process.
They point out that federal law already prohibits government grants, which amounted to $363 million of Planned Parenthood's more than $1 billion budget in 2009, from covering the costs of abortions. President Obama also signed an executive order that affirmed the longstanding restrictions on taxpayer-financed abortions.
Pro-life activists say that neither the law nor the executive order provides a sufficient firewall to prevent taxpayer money from going to fund abortions. Meanwhile, Mr. Jordan and others have injected a spending argument into the debate, saying that the nation cannot afford to continue to spend money on the group.
Rep. Allen West, Florida Republican and a favorite of tea party conservatives, says that the current fight is not over a social issue but over spending.
"It is not about Planned Parenthood, it is about reducing the size and scope of the federal scope of the federal government," he said.
He agreed that the fight was important enough to hold up an agreement.
"We have to have this fight, if it has to be that," he added.
If the language is included, it wouldn't actually save any money. The funds Planned Parenthood currently receives under so-called Title X family planning grants would instead be available to other women's health clinics, some of which also provide abortions.
Asked if that was true, Mr. Jordan said, "essentially, yes."
Others have suggested that it is time to move onto to bigger fights, including 2012 budget and whether to raise the country's borrowing limit.
"I think both sides need to understand that nobody has complete control of the elected government, so neither side is going to get everything they'd like," Sen. Patrick Toomey, said Friday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" talk show.
The Pennsylvania Republican said: "I'd like to defund Planned Parenthood, but I understand that Republicans don't have complete control of the elected government, so I think what we should do is cut spending as much as we can, get the policy changes that we can, but move on because there are other bigger battles that we ought to be fighting."
Congress has been subject to intense lobbying pro and con on the issue as the spending endgame played out. On Thursday some 4,000 women came to a pro-choice rally on Capitol Hill to "stop the war on women."
Cecile Richard, president of Planned Parenthood, called it "the most politically driven assault on women's health in American history." PPFA, she added, offers millions of women affordable cancer screenings, birth control, and sexual disease testing and treatment.
"This event forced Congress to notice that women's rights cannot be sacrificed," added Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
But Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said House members were right to defund "a scandal-plagued abortion organization."
What goes on "behind the windowless offices" is sad enough, he said, "but the fact that it has often been done with taxpayer dollars is indefensible."
"It is unconscionable that House Speaker [John] Boehner would shut down the government -- and cause economic harm to millions -- to advance an extreme ideological agenda: preventing women from obtaining essential health care, including birth control, Pap tests, and breast cancer screenings," Marcia D. Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center said Friday.
Pro-life groups were equally busy contacting allies.
"Why is it reasonable to shut down the government in order to protect Planned Parenthood?" asked Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which has spent more than $500,000 on its campaign to defund PPFA.
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