Defunding Planned Parenthood Is As Big a Deal to Conservatives As Repealing Obamacare

To the GOP base, the crusade to defund Planned Parenthood is as big a deal as the effort to repeal Obamacare. Photo: Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

Most progressive and mainstream media takes on conservative demands to defund Planned Parenthood tend to treat it as a conservative ideological hobby-horse that threatens to complicate bigger issues like the repeal of Obamacare. That significantly underestimates the issue’s importance to the GOP base. In fact, passionate support for efforts to go after Planned Parenthood may in the end force Republicans to go forward with Obamacare repeal legislation before they have a health-care plan together they can all support.

Obamacare repeal and Planned Parenthood defunding have been repeatedly linked by conservatives in the past, not so much because they both involve health-care policy, but because they represent the two priorities for which Republicans most consistently are willing to risk a government shutdown. Indeed, the last two times Congress narrowly avoided a shutdown (in September and then again in December of 2015), it was the Planned Parenthood issue that nearly screwed up everything, in part because a lot of conservatives had vowed never to vote for an appropriation measure that “funded” Planned Parenthood, even though its abortion services have not been eligible for federal funding in many decades. The summer 2015 brouhaha over misleading videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials planning to make a bundle by selling fetal tissue — or as right-to-lifers prefer to call it, “baby parts” — revved up conservative hostility to the organization to a high-pitched chattering whine.

While the 2015 shutdown was averted, in part because everyone knew Barack Obama wasn’t going to let Congress “defund” Planned Parenthood, Obamacare, or the Syrian refugee program that was the other big conservative target, there was zero question the same pressure would return with a vengeance if, as turned out to be the case, Republicans won the “trifecta” in 2016. And indeed, the “trial run” budget reconciliation bill Obama vetoed early in 2016 included both the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and an end to funding of Planned Parenthood. No one should have been surprised that after the 2016 election Paul Ryan and other Republican leaders reassured conservatives Planned Parenthood defunding would again be included in the first big legislative package of the new era. It’s actually never been excluded, and is again in the draft House GOP bill everyone is calling an “Obamacare repeal” that was leaked last week.

So even as observers wonder if the extremely limited GOP opposition to the Planned Parenthood measure — basically a handful of House members and Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, the last of the dying breed of pro-choice Republicans — will mess up the Obamacare repeal, the question we should probably be asking is whether Republican doubts and divisions over Obamacare will mess up what would otherwise be a narrow but very likely vote to defund Planned Parenthood. With a president ready to sign a Planned Parenthood ban, the right-to-life movement is not going to be pushed aside by Republicans this time. And so if the budget bill repealing and partially replacing Obamacare gets delayed beyond a certain point, efforts to defund Planned Parenthood will shift to the must-pass legislation to renew the current-year appropriations due to run out on April 28. A report from Bloomberg Politics pointed to that possibility:

With the [Obamacare] repeal effort increasingly likely to slip into April, the fight could also spill over into the spending battle to keep the government open after current funding expires on Apr. 28. With Republicans insisting that the next spending measure not fund Planned Parenthood, Democrats could block their bill and set up a shutdown showdown.

And so, the conventional wisdom may have it exactly backward: Instead of the Planned Parenthood defunding effort being an extraneous obstacle to the Obamacare repeal effort, it could force congressional Republicans to get a move on lest the crusade against Planned Parenthood cause a government shutdown (produced by a Democratic filibuster of the underlying appropriations bill in the Senate) that would inevitably be blamed on the GOP as masters of Washington. Indeed, given the current hunger of Democrats for any kind of win, this scenario would likely end in a GOP surrender that would make the whole thing a terrible fiasco that might even leave Planned Parenthood funding in place.

Even as they wring their hands over the risks they are running in repealing Obamacare without assurances that the whole thing won’t blow up on them, congressional Republicans will likely obey one of their most important constituency groups by leaping into the void on Obamacare in order to defund Planned Parenthood. That is if, of course, Donald Trump goes along with it, and as we know, he is struggling to get up to speed on all this complicated health-care policy stuff.

Planned Parenthood As Big a Deal to GOP Base As Obamacare