Planned Parenthood: deal-breaker or trump card in government-shutdown talks?

Media reports suggest that Republicans will not agree to a spending deal to avoid a government shutdown unless Planned Parenthood, which performs abortions, is defunded. But that stance could also be used as a GOP bargaining chip.

Mike Theiler/Reuters
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland joins fellow Democratic senators (l. to r.) Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Maria Cantwell of Washington, and Dianne Feinstein of California as she makes remarks on Capitol Hill Friday condemning Republican attempts to introduce women's health issues like Planned Parenthood and abortions into the negotiations to avoid a government shutdown.

During the 2010 campaign, Republicans went to town on the argument that President Obama was not sufficiently focused on jobs, jobs, jobs. He was consumed by the lengthy process of passing health-care reform, fiddling while Rome burned.

Now, it seems, the table has turned. The Republicans control the House, thanks to the energies of the anti-tax, small-government tea party movement. And it’s those tea party-backed congressmen and women, in particular, who are strongly urging House Speaker John Boehner to hang tough and risk a government shutdown at midnight Friday in the name of budget cuts.

But according to Democrats, it’s abortion that has emerged as a final sticking point in budget talks – namely, the federal subsidy of Planned Parenthood, whose clinics do provide abortions (though not with federal money).

So suddenly, at least in the eyes of congressional Democrats, the budget is being held hostage over the abortion issue. Republicans maintain the two parties still have not agreed on a final number for budget cuts. But the Democratic argument has gotten wide play in the media, creating the appearance that the central economic argument behind the budget showdown has been hijacked by one of the most intractable social issues of our time.

Have the Republicans misplayed their hand – inflaming a key voting bloc, pro-abortion-rights women? Or have they cleverly used the Planned Parenthood issue as a way to wring ever-higher budget cuts out of the Democrats, before they drop that particular funding cut?

Perhaps both, says Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University.

“It’s kind of a game,” he says. “Both sides are staring at each other, and I think they’re throwing these things out and using them for different purposes.”

There’s no doubt that the Democrats have grabbed onto the attack on Planned Parenthood as a rallying point. But while Republicans seem to have subsumed their budget-cutting mantra to the abortion issue, they are also exciting a part of their base – social conservatives – who may have felt alienated. Both sides are taking risks.

And even if some tea party activists, such as Amy Kremer of Tea Party Express, don’t take public positions on social issues, polls have shown a big overlap between people who sympathize with the tea party’s budget-cutting goals and people who hold socially conservative views.

As Democrats ask how Republicans can be willing to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood, abortions foes turn the same question back at President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: “Why is it reasonable to shut down the government in order to protect this one organization?” says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List.

Democrats argue that the effort to deny Planned Parenthood its $363 million government subsidy (about one-third of its budget) doesn’t even save the government money. The legislative rider in question – originally known as the Pence Amendment, named for Rep. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana – would prevent funds under Title X of the Public Health Service Act from going to Planned Parenthood, but would not reduce the total funding available for family planning.

Word Friday morning was that negotiators working overnight had settled most of the outstanding issues – including removal of a rider that would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions – but that the Planned Parenthood rider remained.

“The issue here is funding local health clinics that provide services like cancer screenings, that save women's lives and save money down the road by catching diseases that are expensive to treat, and sometimes too far along to treat,” Senator Reid said Friday afternoon. “The fact that Republicans have made this about women's health and not about money or anything controversial is really a sham.”

Republicans argue that there are plenty of clinics funded by Title X that offer family planning services without providing abortions.

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