Senate GOP Loses Battle, Sets Up War Over Planned Parenthood

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Senator Ted Cruz speaks during an anti-aobrtion rally in front of the U.S. Capitol on July 28, 2015. Photo: Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

The Republicans' first move in their renewed effort to defund Planned Parenthood failed on Monday, but they set the stage for a potential government shutdown this fall and ensured that the issue will be front and center in the 2016 campaign. In response to the secretly recorded videos in which Planned Parenthood officials discuss gathering fetal tissue from abortions for research purposes (not for profit, as many conservatives allege), Senate Republicans pushed legislation that would stop all government funding to the organization. Planned Parenthood receives up to $500 million annually in Medicaid reimbursements and $60 million in federal funds for family-planning services, but by law none of that money can fund abortions. Nevertheless, Republican senator Joni Ernst declared on Monday, "The American taxpayer should not be asked to fund an organization like Planned Parenthood that has shown a sheer disdain for human dignity and complete disregard for women and their babies."

The procedural vote failed 53–46, with Republicans falling short of the 60 votes needed to advance the measure. The votes fell mostly along party lines, but two moderate Democrats, senators Joe Manchin and Joe Donnelly, voted for it. Senator Mark Kirk was the lone Republican who voted against it initially, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell switched his vote to "no," a procedural maneuver that allows him to hold a new vote at a later date.

Congress is heading into a five-week recess, but some in the Republican Party have vowed to take up the fight again in the fall by attaching it to a funding bill that must pass by October 1 to avoid a government shutdown. The Republican leadership doesn't seem interested in another shutdown debacle, but conservatives in the party are forcing the issue. Last week, 18 House Republicans wrote in a letter to leadership, "Please know that we cannot and will not support any funding resolution — an appropriations bill, an omnibus package, a continuing resolution or otherwise — that contains any funding for Planned Parenthood, including mandatory funding streams."

Senator Kirk and fellow Republican senator Susan Collins are trying to offer their party a way out. The Hill reports that they've introduced legislation that would call on the Justice Department to launch an investigation into Planned Parenthood and cut funding to facilities that profited from harvested fetal tissue (if there are any). "I realize some people want to write this is going to be shutdown material … It's not," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn told Politico. "But we’re serious about it."

While some Republicans have realized that threatening to shut down the government never works, the issue has already seeped into the 2016 race. Senator Ted Cruz, who provoked the 2013 shutdown that failed to destroy Obamacare, is leading the latest shutdown push, and fellow candidates senators Rand Paul and Marco Rubio joined him in supporting Monday's procedural vote. (Senator Lindsey Graham wasn't present for the vote.) "We should use any and every procedural means we have available to end funding for Planned Parenthood," Cruz said. "It should be a very easy decision that taxpayer funds will not go to fund an ongoing criminal enterprise."

The move prompted a predictable reaction from the Democratic side. Though she called the videos "disturbing" last week, on Monday Hillary Clinton declared she's solidly pro–Planned Parenthood.

In the video, Clinton attacks three of her rivals who aren't directly involved in the congressional fight — Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and former Texas governor Rick Perry — saying that while in office they cut funding for women's health services. "If this feels like a full-on assault on women's health, that's because it is," Clinton says. And if it feels like this election's battle over the Republican "War on Women" is going to be even bigger than it was in 2012, that's because it is.