Senate Dems fear abortion vote

Senate Democrats are bracing for the possibility that the House Republican majority can force their hand on abortion legislation.

House Republicans are focusing this week on legislation placing new restrictions on abortion, causing Senate Democrats to worry Republicans in the upper chamber will use a variety of legislative maneuvers to bring a vote to the floor.

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Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) predicted Tuesday that Republicans would try to force a vote on abortion bills by attaching them as riders to must-pass legislation.

“We’re going to be working on many fronts,” Boxer said. “We’re not going to sit back and allow women’s health to be attacked or their lives to be attacked, so we’ll do whatever it takes.”

“We’re going to fight this with everything we have,” added Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Though Democrats still hold the majority in the Senate, Republicans have shown they could force a vote on politically challenging issues. Despite promising for weeks that the Senate would not hold a vote on repealing the healthcare reform law, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) relented last week in an agreement with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

House Republicans are backing two major abortion bills early in the new Congress. 

The Protect Life Act, sponsored by Reps. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), would ensure that healthcare reform does not provide federal funding for abortion, while the more comprehensive No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), would extend new restrictions on abortion. Another bill from Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) would cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

Though congressional Republicans won back the House in November on a campaign that largely focused on improving the economy and repealing healthcare reform, anti-abortion groups are pushing Republicans to pass new abortion legislation. The party’s selection of Pitts as chairman of an Energy and Commerce health subpanel was seen as a nod to anti-abortion-rights advocates.

The House debate on abortion beganTuesday in a Judiciary subcommittee hearing on Smith’s bill. Meanwhile, the Energy and Commerce health subpanel will hold a hearing Wednesday on the Protect Life Act. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) offered little detail on Tuesday about plans to advance the abortion bills.

“We have not yet set the calendar for those bills,” he told reporters. “They obviously are very important in terms of the priorities we set out initially in our ‘Pledge to America.’ These are bills which have to do with the expenditure of government funds — taxpayer dollars for abortions — something that most Americans feel we should do without.”

Democrats on Tuesday hammered Republicans for wading into the culture-war debate so early into the new Congress, accusing them of abandoning their campaign promise to focus on the economy. The Democrats, who used similar messaging leading up to the healthcare reform repeal vote, are trying to paint Republican healthcare efforts as a distraction from creating jobs.

“I do not understand how this Republican Congress can move from that mandate to create jobs, to create opportunities in this country, toward how we undermine women’s reproductive health,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

Abortion-rights groups, mobilizing to combat efforts to limit reproductive services, hammered home that same point.

“The House leadership is clearly out of touch with the American people, as they are continuing to focus on legislation that takes away healthcare women currently have instead of focusing on jobs and the economy,” said Cecile Richard, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Cantor said Republicans are trying to make good on a “Pledge to America” promise by cutting taxpayer funding for abortion.

“This is also consistent with reducing spending in Washington,” Cantor said during his weekly meeting with reporters.

Should Republicans attach abortion language to must-pass legislation, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said, Democrats must be ready to shine a light on political gamesmanship.

“Playing chicken with the legislative process will be denounced by the American public, and I think Leader Reid’s hand will be strengthened by so much attention being given to this issue,” he said.