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Congress hurtles toward shutdown fight over Planned Parenthood funds

Some conservative lawmakers want to tie defunding provision to budget bill needed to keep government open past Oct. 1

WASHINGTON — Two years after Republicans shut down the government in a failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, lawmakers again appear to be hurtling toward a funding impasse — this time over federal money for Planned Parenthood.

The organization, a network of women’s health clinics and the nation’s largest abortion provider, became a lightning rod of criticism after a series of videos, recorded secretly by undercover anti-abortion activists, were released showing top-ranking Planned Parenthood officials discussing fetal tissue donation in graphic, often dispassionate terms. Critics said the videos essentially showed the organization negotiating the sale of fetal body parts, even as Planned Parenthood has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and alleged the videos were heavily edited to mislead.

The controversy sparked a 248-177 vote in the GOP-controlled House on Friday that stripped the group of funding for one year while congressional investigations are conducted, but Republicans are unlikely to muster the 60 votes needed to get the bill across the finish line in the Senate or override a promised veto by President Barack Obama.

Now some conservative lawmakers insist that it’s time to up the ante and attach a defunding provision to a broader budget bill that is required to keep the government open past Oct. 1, even if it provokes a shutdown standoff with the president.  

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., has been circulating a letter, co-signed so far by 31 of his House Republican colleagues, emphasizing that they will not support any funding legislation that includes federal money for Planned Parenthood.

“It is imperative that Congress do everything within its power to investigate these reports and take immediate action to stop them,” the letter read. “In the meantime, we must act to fully defund Planned Parenthood. 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.”

Many Republican lawmakers, however, worry over another disaster for the party if they lead a charge to shutter the government with no exit strategy in place to force Obama’s hand. The last government shutdown resulted in the Republican Party’s image taking a beating and the Affordable Care Act still in place, although the GOP managed to win control of the Senate in the 2014 elections.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last month called pursuing a shutdown “an exercise in futility.” “The honest answer of that is that’s not going to happen until you have a president who has a similar view," he told Politico earlier this month.  

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who is up for re-election in 2016, has urged Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has advocated for the shutdown tactic to defund Planned Parenthood, to lay out his endgame, noting that his 2013 attempt to strip funding from the Affordable Care Act was ultimately unsuccessful. 

“What is your strategy to succeed in actually defunding Planned Parenthood? How do we get 60 votes? And if for some reason there were 60 votes, how do we get 67 votes in the Senate to overcome a presidential veto?” she wrote in a letter addressed to Cruz on Friday. “During the last government shutdown, I repeatedly asked you what your strategy for success was when we did not have the votes to achieve the goal of defunding Obamacare, but I did not receive an answer. I am again asking this question and would appreciate you sharing your strategy for success with all of us before any damaging government shutdown becomes imminent.”

Some lawmakers also argue that provoking a shutdown would damage the party before the 2016 elections and make it less likely that an anti-abortion Republican candidate will be elected president.

"There are some in the House who are using serious governance issues to score cheap political points against the speaker," said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., told The Associated Press. “Shutting down the government is not in our political interest. It will undermine the Republican brand, and it will hurt whoever the Republican nominee is in November.”

Planned Parenthood provides health services to approximately 3 million people annually, including treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, cancer screenings and contraceptives, according to the organization’s most recent annual report. Abortions constitute 3 percent of services provided by Planned Parenthood branches. An estimated 41 percent of the organization’s revenue is derived from government sources. 

President Barack Obama has urged his political opponents to come to reason. “What’s not the right thing to do, what makes no sense at all, is Congress threatening to shut down the entire federal government if they can’t shut down women’s access to Planned Parenthood. That’s not a good idea,” he said Saturday in a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus. “Congress should be working on investing things that grow our economy and expand opportunity and not get distracted and inflict the kind of self-inflicted wounds that we’ve seen before on our economy.”

Still, those urging the Republican Party to pursue the most aggressive strategy possible to defund Planned Parenthood said the fight is substantively different from the 2013 battle to repeal the Affordable Care Act. More Americans are learning about Planned Parenthood’s unsavory practices by way of the undercover videos, said Mallory Quigley, a spokeswoman for the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion advocacy organization, and the debate is one that favors the GOP.

“The Republican Party needs to show that they stand on principle and they will push to get something done,” she said. “And if you look at the electorate right now, they’re not in mood for business as usual.”

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