- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Senate Republicans set up a vote Thursday to withhold some money from Planned Parenthood as part of a deal to keep the government funded beyond the end of this month, cuing an abortion-tinged shutdown showdown just hours after Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress.

Democrats are vowing to block the move. They and conservatives alike say the vote is a fig leaf and predicted Republican leaders will eventually relent on the Planned Parenthood fight to avoid a repeat of the 16-day shutdown in 2013.

“Right now, we’re playing a game of chicken, and it’s a dangerous game,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who pleaded for her fellow Republicans to forgo a similar shutdown fight.

Funding for many basic federal operations expires Sept. 30, which is the end of fiscal year 2015, and Congress has stalemated over the dozen spending bills to cover 2016.

The House has passed about half of the bills but stalled over an internal Republican dispute. The Senate hasn’t passed any bills since Democrats threatened a filibuster to block all of them until Republicans agree to more spending.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, tried to force action Tuesday on the defense spending bill, which is usually deemed the most important of the 12 bills, but Democrats again filibustered.

Republican leaders then released a short-term stopgap bill, known as a continuing resolution, or “CR” in Capitol-speak, to keep all federal operations running through Dec. 11 — but to withhold some of the money that Planned Parenthood would normally get under federal grant programs.

“I know Democrats have already blocked virtually every bill to fund the government this year, but I’m asking them to allow the Senate to fund the government now,” Mr. McConnell said.

At issue are the spending caps President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, agreed to in a 2011 budget deal. Known as the sequesters, they continue to keep a lid on discretionary federal spending — but the slices are becoming tougher for both sides to stomach.

Republican defense hawks insisted that Congress find more money for the military as the war on terrorism heats up. They proposed testing the limits of the sequester caps through a budget gimmick that declared $13 billion in additional funds to be one-time war spending.

Democrats refused to allow any defense increases unless domestic spending gets an equal boost. Senate Democrats mounted their filibuster and demanded that Republicans scrap their budget plans and renegotiate a deal.

“For months, we’ve called for bipartisan negotiation to make sure that we can fund the government for the next year,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “We’ve had no response, basically. We’ve wasted votes, wasted votes and wasted votes.”

Democrats are confident that a “Republican shutdown” would prevail in voters’ minds and are scheduling a series of press conferences to highlight the fiscal dangers of a shutdown.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, appeared with National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins on Tuesday to argue that a shutdown would halt important medical research and patients whose lives are not in immediate danger would be turned away from the Bethesda campus.

“The place, it empties out. Walking around that last time was about the most depressing thing I’ve been through in my 22 years of being at NIH,” Dr. Collins said.

The NIH is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency’s federal contingency plan showed that 54 percent of employees would be furloughed in the case of a shutdown.

Conservative lawmakers, pressured by advocacy groups, are holding firm in their demand for a shutdown fight, saying they cannot support a spending bill that includes money for Planned Parenthood.

Though no federal money goes to fund abortions directly, the organization’s affiliates do collect hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money each year.

Disgusted by recently released undercover videos that appear to show Planned Parenthood officials negotiating the sale of organs from aborted fetuses, to be used for research, Senate Republican leaders’ latest bill would strip $235 million from the organization and redirect the funding to other community and women’s health care centers.

“I know Democrats have relied on Planned Parenthood as a political ally, but they must be moved by the horrifying images we’ve seen,” Mr. McConnell said. “Can they not resolve to protect women’s health instead of powerful political friends?”

A McConnell spokesman said the Planned Parenthood provision is identical to defunding language that the House passed last week.

But with Democrats set to filibuster Thursday, Mr. McConnell was coy about his contingency plan.

“We’ll let you know the way forward after we see what happens Thursday afternoon,” Mr. McConnell said.

Top presidential candidates are urging Republican leaders in Congress to force the fight.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, one of the Republican presidential hopefuls, led the push for the 2013 shutdown fight over Obamacare funding and vowed to try a repeat this year over Planned Parenthood.

In a Twitter message Tuesday, he signaled that he is still committed to the fight.

Ms. Ayotte, while supporting redirection of the money away from Planned Parenthood, flatly rejected the Cruz-led no-holds-barred strategy.

She said Democrats can filibuster any bill that strips funding from Planned Parenthood and Mr. Obama can veto it, leaving Republicans without any options other than to pass a “clean” spending bill that funds government as is.

“What’s the endgame for success here?” she said.

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