House GOP faces shutdown crisis

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House Republicans will huddle in a pivotal closed-door meeting Wednesday morning as they face mounting pressure to defund Planned Parenthood — including threats to shut down the government.

Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulWhat the 'Bernie Sanders wing of the GOP' can teach Congress GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election How low is the bar for presidential candidates, anyway? MORE of Kentucky, who’s seeking the GOP presidential nomination, will headline a rally with several pro-life groups outside the Capitol on Thursday, calling on Congress to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood in the spending bill that must be passed by Oct. 1 to avert a shutdown.

Conservative outside group Heritage Action for America says at least 28 House Republicans have signed or plan to sign a letter demanding that Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerTrump may pose problem for Ryan in Speaker vote Conservatives backing Trump keep focus on Supreme Court Vote House Republicans out MORE (R-Ohio) and his leadership team block Planned Parenthood funding. The group is urging leaders to hold a special conference meeting to discuss “atrocities” carried out by the nonprofit healthcare group.

If that many House Republicans stick to those demands, Boehner would have no wiggle room to pass a stopgap government spending bill. House Democrats would be expected to vote against legislation blocking funding for the group, which is under fire after the release of a series of undercover videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing the donation of tissue from aborted fetuses.

Conservatives want to redirect money to federally approved community health centers that don’t perform abortions or donate fetal tissue for research, said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

“It is the most logical position you could have,” Jordan, who signed the Heritage Action letter, argued in a phone interview on Tuesday.

Asked if he was willing to shut down the government to block Planned Parenthood’s funding, Jordan sought to deflect blame to Democrats. He suggested President Obama and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) believe that Planned Parenthood should receive tax dollars instead of U.S. troops, veterans and women’s health programs. 

“This idea that somehow Republicans are responsible is just ridiculous,” Jordan said.

Boehner, who’s in his third term as Speaker, is in a particularly precarious position this month. He’s had a target on his back all year — Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) rolled out a symbolic resolution right before the August recess to boot Boehner from his leadership post.

And there’s concern among some Boehner loyalists that conservative foes will force a vote to oust him this fall if he cuts a deal with President Obama and Democrats to fund the government without addressing the fetal tissue controversy.

But those in Boehner’s inner circle say he would prevail if such a vote were called.

“If a small group of members want to try and take out the Speaker simply because he’s unwilling to shut down the government and ultimately damage the pro-life cause,” a House GOP aide said, “that’s a pretty sad commentary on their mindset.”

Wednesday’s conference meeting is the first since Congress's long summer recess. Boehner's remarks will mostly focus on this week’s vote on a resolution expressing disapproval of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, as well as a continuing resolution, or CR, to keep the government open until December, aides said.

But the elephant in the room will be Planned Parenthood and what to do about it.

While the number of signatures on the Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) letter grew over the August recess, that figure pales in comparison to the 80 House Republicans who signed onto a letter in 2013 pushing GOP leaders to defund ObamaCare.

That effort led to a 16-day government shutdown that October.

Boehner and his Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are in no mood to reprise the shutdown of 2013. They believe another headline-grabbing crisis would severely damage the party at a time when they’re trying to show that Republicans can govern and take back the White House.

Yet even leadership allies are bracing for the worst.

Congress has “a great capacity to screw up. Never underestimate our ability to screw up,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), an Appropriations subcommittee chairman, said in a phone interview. Dent added that he’s dreading “another messy session.”

The leadership's strategy for averting a shutdown began to emerge Monday afternoon.

Boehner told members in a closed-door meeting that leadership would hold "listening sessions" on Planned Parenthood starting this week, according to one member in the room.

"[They told us] there would be some listening sessions set up so people could have their questions answered," Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) told The Hill.

Black and Reps. Joe Pitts (Pa.), Chris Smith (N.J.) and Trent Franks (Ariz.), who are all leading the anti-abortion push in the House, were seen leaving a meeting in Boehner's office Tuesday afternoon. 

Black said leaders have not yet decided whether to hold a vote on legislation defunding Planned Parenthood, including the one she drafted, that now has 167 co-sponsors.

GOP leaders have several paths forward on defunding Planned Parenthood, all laid out in competing bills.

The most popular option, which comes from Black, would freeze all federal funding — mandatory and discretionary — for one year until the group is investigated.

A Senate bill from Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) goes even further by permanently eliminating all funding for the group, though it has already failed in the chamber. 

Another House bill would block only the group’s Title X family planning grants without touching mandatory funding from Medicaid. Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), who introduced the bill on Tuesday, pitched it as a simpler strategy because it falls under the jurisdiction of only one committee.

Black has maintained that House leadership backs her bill, but aides say GOP leaders have not yet firmed up their strategy. Even members of the House Pro-Life Caucus said leadership isn’t showing their hand. 

“As of right now, I think things are very up in the air,” a House GOP aide said. “We wonder, priority-wise, where this falls on the docket."

None of the bills would be likely to pass the Senate, however, where rules allow the minority to filibuster legislation. And Republicans fear they’d be blamed if a shutdown resulted from the impasse.

House Democratic leaders on Tuesday called on House Republicans to hold bipartisan negotiations over 2016 spending. And the White House raised pressure on congressional negotiators, reiterating that Obama would not agree to any legislation that keeps sequester spending levels.

“He will not sign into a law a budget bill that would lock in sequester levels of spending," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday.

Earnest declined to comment on whether the White House would accept a short-term funding bill to keep the government open at current spending levels and buy more time for both parties to reach a solution.

“I would not prejudge any outcomes at this point," he said.

GOP aides said Tuesday it’s unlikely that language for the CR would be released this week. Before the August recess, Boehner said that Congress would likely need to pass a CR by the Oct. 1 deadline in order to buy more time for larger budget and spending negotiations.

The House will be in session for only 12 days this month before funding for the government runs out.

Jordan Fabian contributed to this story.