Pressure builds on GOP leaders

Greg Nash

House Republican leaders are facing growing pressure from their members to cut off money for Planned Parenthood even as they try to tamp down talk of a shutdown fight with Democrats.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 31 House Republicans had signed on to a letter from Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) vowing to oppose any spending bill that includes Planned Parenthood funding.

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That presents a problem for Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerEXCLUSIVE: Pro-Hillary group takes 0K in banned donations Ryan: Benghazi report shows administration's failures Clinton can't escape Benghazi responsibility MORE (R-Ohio), because Republican leaders can only lose 28 GOP votes before needing Democratic support to pass legislation.

BoehnerJohn BoehnerEXCLUSIVE: Pro-Hillary group takes 0K in banned donations Ryan: Benghazi report shows administration's failures Clinton can't escape Benghazi responsibility MORE is looking to avoid a shutdown fight over defunding the women’s health group through a spending bill. 

At a Republican conference meeting on Wednesday, Boehner did not rule out targeting Planned Parenthood through a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government. Still, he warned that even if Republicans succeeded, the loss of the funding wouldn’t stop the organization from collecting fetal tissue for medical research, according to a source in the room.

Boehner also noted that a shutdown wouldn’t stop Planned Parenthood from receiving funding, because most of it comes from Medicaid, which is not covered by a regular appropriations bill.

Members of House GOP leadership plan to hold listening sessions this week with rank-and-file members as they seek a path forward.

One option is to pass a stand-alone bill to defund Planned Parenthood alongside congressional hearings that would allow members to make their voices heard on the issue. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, said Wednesday that strategy “seemed like a realistic thing that I would be for,” as leadership looks to avoid a shutdown on Oct. 1.

Congress has only about 10 days in session before the funding deadline, with the schedule compressed even more by debate over the Iran nuclear deal and the upcoming visit by Pope Francis.

A second option to defund Planned Parenthood is to use the fast-track budget process known as reconciliation, which would allow a defunding measure to pass with 51 votes in the Senate instead of the usual 60. 

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, a central player in the process, said using reconciliation on Planned Parenthood is “being discussed” but it is “too early” to say whether it is likely or whether he favors that course. 

Some House conservatives, however, are not satisfied with either option and are pushing for the riskier course of using the government spending bill to defund the group.  

“We’ve got 31 signatures on the letter, which is enough to force the discussion,” Mulvaney said Wednesday. 

Still, Mulvaney said that he did not get a sense from the Republican conference meeting Wednesday morning that leadership will follow his preferred course of action.

“At the conference this morning, the top-line messaging was let’s talk about what we’ve already done for the pro-life movement over the last several years,” he said. “To me, what that means is we’re setting up for surrender.” 

Several conservatives also called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellOvernight Healthcare: Dems dig in over Zika funding Business groups ramp up pressure to fill Ex-Im board Senate Dems: No August break without Zika deal MORE (R-Ky.), who has said defunding Planned Parenthood must wait for a new president, to fight harder, and they raised the idea of employing the controversial “nuclear option” to eliminate the filibuster. 

“Mitch is going to have to wake up and figure out that at some point there may be some more important things than some 40-year-old Senate rules,” Mulvaney said. 

And Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzThe Trail 2016: Meet and greet and grief Trump to meet with Senate GOP next week Trump camp eyeing Mike Pence for VP: report MORE (R-Texas), a presidential candidate who was a central player in the 2013 government shutdown, has invited a group of conservatives to discuss strategy, according to CNN.

GOP leaders hope the listening sessions could help more members feel included in the process and divert some of the anger away from the government funding fight. 

“The listening session is designed to build confidence that we’re getting the best ideas and we’re sharing the best ideas,” Sessions said.

Asked when the listening sessions would give way to a planned course of action, Sessions said, “Probably next week.”

At a press conference following the morning meeting, Boehner deflected a question about whether he will decide to move a “clean” CR to fund the government.

“I have not made any decisions on when we would move the CR,” he said. 

In the meeting, Boehner expressed support for defunding Planned Parenthood in general, as well as tightening laws in order to prohibit the organization’s fetal tissue program, according to the source in the room. 

Planned Parenthood has come under fire over a series of undercover videos that show officials discussing costs associated with its fetal tissue program. The organization denies wrongdoing and says it is only receiving legal compensation for expenses, not profits.

The problem for the GOP is that Democrats will not support a bill that cuts off Planned Parenthood’s funding, and President Obama would veto one if it reaches his desk. Republican leaders worry their party will get the blame for a shutdown.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) noted that the effort in 2013 to defund ObamaCare — which resulted in a shutdown that lasted 16 days — did not succeed.

“I think they want something that will pass,” Cole said about leadership’s plan. “I think October 2013, we had something that was extraordinarily unpopular, which was ObamaCare, shutting down the government still didn’t work, suggests that wasn’t a winning strategy.”

Meanwhile, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said Wednesday that he doesn’t want a rider defunding Planned Parenthood attached to a government funding measure. 

“I want a clean CR. I want them to let us finish our work,” he said. “I want it clean.”