Four years after GOP Senate candidates stumbled over reproductive rights, the thorny issue is once again front and center as Congress kicks off 2016 with a vote to strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood in retaliation for its abortion practices.
The House is expected to easily approve a bill Wednesday that punished the country’s biggest abortion provider, and repeals some of the key parts of Obamacare. President Obama has said he’ll veto the legislation, and there’s little chance of Republicans overriding him, but the showdown is still expected to rally conservatives and set the tone for the election year.
The effort to repeal Obamacare is likely to steal most of the headlines, but all sides say a successful repeal will need to be coupled with a replacement — something GOP leaders are years overdue in writing.
Instead, it’s the strike at Planned Parenthood that could be the bigger statement out of Wednesday’s vote, demonstrating how swiftly Republicans could win a pro-life war they’ve been waging for several years if they get one of their own into the White House.
“Taking that money away sends a strong message about why the election is important and what Republicans could do if they had full control of government,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “That vote is a way to tell conservative activists that there is a major difference between the two parties and they need to work hard to put Republicans in a position to deliver on its campaign promises.”
Democrats say they welcome the distinction, warning the GOP of a repeat of 2012, when several Republican Senate contenders stumbled after making statements questioning the prevalence of abortions resulting from rape. Democrats said the remarks embodied a GOP “war on women,” and the episode doomed Republicans’ chance to nab seats out of Missouri and Indiana.
“The Republicans who control Congress clearly haven’t learned their lesson as they continue to waste time waging political battles against women’s healthcare, proving just how reckless and out of touch they are,” said Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “They simply do not share the same priorities as the people they’re supposed to represent.”
Republicans have been sparring with Planned Parenthood since taking control of the House in 2011 and attaching language defunding the organization to the very first spending bill.
Then-speaker John A. Boehner ultimately relented in negotiations with Mr. Obama, and the money has kept flowing since — about $500 million a year.
“I think it’s important that we understand that what we want to do here is win the war not just win a battle and there will be an opportunity sometime in order to win the big war and we’re looking for that opportunity,” Mr. Boehner told the Christian Broadcasting Network at the time.
After repeated false starts, the GOP thought it found the right opening last year, when pro-life activists released a series of videos suggesting Planned Parenthood was skirting the law when it negotiated the sale of tissue taken from aborted fetuses. Such sales are legal only if they are not done for profit.
Planned Parenthood says it’s done nothing wrong and has welcomed scrutiny from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General.
Republicans, though, say the videos change the debate, focusing the fight on the reach of government, not on a woman’s personal choices.
GOP leaders have argued that taxpayers should not be propping up organizations that perform abortions and harvest fetal tissue, even though clinics and other health providers are barred from spending federal funds on the procedure itself. Their plan is to redirect $235 million of the organization’s funding to health clinics that offer women’s health services besides abortion.
“This bill will stop taxpayer dollars from going to abortion providers, like Planned Parenthood, as the House continues to investigate allegations of the horrific harvesting of children’s organs and the handling of infant lives,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said.
Reproductive rights will take center stage once again in the months ahead at the Supreme Court, just as the 2016 contests pick up steam.
The justices will decide whether the administration overstepped its bounds by requiring religious nonprofits to opt out of Obamacare’s contraception rules, instead of exempting them outright, and if a 2013 Texas law that requires abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges at local hospitals is an unlawful attempt to erode abortions in the name of promoting health.
For now, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said the GOP is making promises it won’t keep, citing polls that shows the majority of Americans don’t want to defund Planned Parenthood.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” the Maryland Democrat said.