- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 7, 2017

Republican leaders scrapped a fight over Planned Parenthood in last week’s spending bill, fearing it would sink the legislation and insisting it made more sense as part of Obamacare’s repeal.

Now it’s turning into a major hurdle for the repeal effort, too.

At least three Republican senators have expressed skepticism about defunding, which the House included as part of the health care bill it passed on a tight vote last week.

Combined with Democrats’ unanimous opposition to the Republican health care bill, those three senators’ objections would be enough to sink the Obamacare repeal outright.

The math has Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, in a bind.

“Mitch McConnell is very smart,” said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council. “He can count votes. He knows what happens if this comes back to the House without these provisions.”

SEE ALSO: Susan Collins, Maine Republican: House GOP made ‘mistake’ in defunding Planned Parenthood

Republicans have been attempting to strip out money for Planned Parenthood, the country’s largest network of abortion clinics, for years, arguing that while taxpayer money generally doesn’t go to pay for abortions, it does subsidize the clinics and allows them to perform the procedure.

Republican candidates last year promised to defund Planned Parenthood if they won control of Washington.

But they passed up their first opportunity when they removed defunding language from the 2017 spending bill.

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said the administration figured the fight was better staged on the Obamacare repeal, where it has been part of the legislation going back to 2015.

“If you’re a lawmaker serious about voting to defund Planned Parenthood, then your opportunity to do that is in the AHCA, the American Health Care Act,” Mr. Mulvaney said.

The problem for Republicans, though, is there probably isn’t enough support.

Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine opposes defunding Planned Parenthood, while Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, warned leaders in February not to lump it in with the Obamacare fight.

Sen. Dean Heller, Nevada Republican, recently said at a town hall meeting that he has “no problem with federal funding for Planned Parenthood.”

The organization’s political action arm highlighted Mr. Heller’s comments in ads before his re-election fight next year.

Planned Parenthood is also urging Republican Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Jeff Flake of Arizona to reject defunding.

Senate Republicans cannot afford to lose more than two votes from their 52-seat majority as they take the legislation from the House, which passed its Obamacare repeal on a 217-213 vote Thursday.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Senate Health Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, told reporters that the Senate plans to write its own bill, though it will review the House version and “take whatever good ideas we find there.”

Pro-life groups say the Planned Parenthood piece is non-negotiable, particularly since it was carved out of spending talks.

If the Senate jettisons Planned Parenthood defunding, “then all bets are off, and we made that clear to leadership,” Mr. Perkins said.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and other Republican leaders have committed themselves to the defunding effort, he said, so restoring Planned Parenthood in the Senate would upend a final deal.

Planned Parenthood receives about $550 million in federal reimbursements per year, so losing that money would be a serious blow to its clinics across the country, which also provide cancer screenings and other services.

A recurring provision known as “Hyde language” bars federal dollars from subsidizing abortion, and conservatives say taxpayers should not prop up the organization.

The House attempt to punish Planned Parenthood remains a sticking point for Ms. Collins, who also questioned whether the House bill would provide adequate coverage or if its tax credits and protections for sicker Americans would be adequate.

“It’s not the only issue in this huge bill. But I certainly think it’s not fair and it is a mistake to defund Planned Parenthood. It’s one of many issues,” she told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.

Ms. Collins, Ms. Murkowski and then-Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois tried to separate Planned Parenthood funding from the Obamacare repeal bill that made it through Congress a year ago but was vetoed by President Obama.

After the veto, Ms. Collins rejected the overall measure. Ms. Murkowski supported it, though she drew a line in the sand this year.

“I, for one, do not believe that Planned Parenthood has any place in our deliberations on the Affordable Care Act. Taxpayer dollars should never be used to pay for abortions, but I will not vote to deny Alaskans access to the health services that Planned Parenthood provides,” she told the Alaska Legislature.

Beyond the issue of Planned Parenthood, Ms. Murkowski and three other senators say freezing and reining in the vast expansion of Medicaid insurance for the poor in their states would be a step backward and hold back mental health treatment and stymie the fight against opioid addiction.

Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, reiterated his concerns about replacing Obamacare’s subsidies with refundable tax credits and said he is not interested in “subsidizing the profit of insurance companies.”

The House also made a series of changes to its bill to let states duck Obamacare’s insurance strictures and backstop sicker customers’ costs with billions of taxpayer dollars. But the Senate’s main referee — the parliamentarian — may decide that House changes don’t satisfy the rules of the arcane budget process that Republicans are using to avoid a Democratic filibuster.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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