Party leaders send women into committee brawl over abortion

Party leaders send women into committee brawl over abortion
© Greg Nash

Republicans and Democrats have stacked a new select committee on Planned Parenthood with their fiercest fighters on abortion rights, setting the stage for a major election-year battle.

Unlike every other committee in Congress, the overwhelming majority of lawmakers on the panel are women, with Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) serving as chairwoman and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) serving as the ranking Democrat.

“It makes sense to me, since the topic is of particular interest to women,” Schakowsky told The Hill.

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The prevalence of women on the committee is almost without precedent in the House.

The only other House committee in history to have a woman serving as chairman and ranking member was the House Select Committee on the Beauty Shop. That panel existed from 1967 to 1977, and oversaw the operations of a salon on Capitol Hill. The panel was later folded into the House Administration Committee.

Both sides in the abortion debate are eager to see their allies duke it out, following the controversy over undercover Planned Parenthood videos.

Opponents of abortion rights, in particular, believe the committee could be the jolt they need headed into the 2016 elections.  

“This is really mission central,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, who founded Susan B. Anthony’s List to attract more women to the anti-abortion movement.

“Because women are perceived as having standing on this issue, we’re given a wider allowance. When something comes out of a man’s mouth, there’s a much more rigorous analysis,” added Dannenfelser, a former staffer for the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus.

Nine of the 14 members of the select committee are women. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appointed just one man, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) — a fierce defender of abortion rights — alongside with five women who are in the House Pro-Choice Caucus. One of those women, Rep. Jackie Speier (Calif.), has been vocal about her own decision to have an abortion for medical reasons two decades ago.  

Among the eight Republicans, men and women are equally represented.

The GOP’s picks include freshman Mia Love (R-Utah), whose impassioned remarks on Planned Parenthood this year have primed her to take a leading role, and Rep. Diane Black (Tenn.), the author of this year’s House-passed bill to defund Planned Parenthood.

Black told The Hill that female leadership of the committee was “obviously” important, but argued that the potential findings of the investigation wouldn’t be impacting only one gender.

“I think it just says the issue is certainly one that women care a lot about, not that men don’t, and men obviously are going to be on the committee too,” Black said.

Blackburn, for her part, downplayed the impact of becoming the second women appointed to lead a House committee in this Congress. House Administration Committee Chairwoman Candice Miller (R-Mich.) is currently the only other woman leading a panel, compared to more than 20 male chairmen.

Two women chair committees in the Senate.

“I think more important is being someone who can get the job done,” Blackburn said.

But Republicans are keenly aware of the gender optics, having been burned by it in the past.

In 2012, the GOP-led House Oversight Committee came under fire for a hearing about the Obama administration’s contraception mandate with an all-male witness panel. Headlines about the hearing mainly featured a quote from Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.): “Where are the women?”

Later in 2012, then-Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) ultimately derailed his Senate bid after he claimed in a television interview that pregnancies rarely result from “legitimate rape.”

A year later, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) sparked outcry after suggesting during a committee markup on his bill to ban late-term abortions that pregnancies resulting from rape are “very low.” Blackburn was later assigned to manage floor debate on the legislation in his place.

Schakowsky suspects Republicans want to avoid similar episodes during the Planned Parenthood investigation.

“Clearly, they want to put a different face on this discussion,” Schakowsky said of the GOP. “But I don’t know that it’ll really represent a big difference between the positions that many of the Republican men and women share that’s very different from the Democrats.”

No hearings of the select committee have been scheduled yet, but Democrats are already rolling out their attacks. In a release announcing appointees to the panel, Pelosi repeatedly referred to it as the “Select Committee to Attack Women’s Health.”

Dannenfelser, the founder of Susan B. Anthony’s List, said the Planned Parenthood committee could mark the first major instance in Congress where women are arguing against other women on the issue of abortion.

It’s a giant leap from her time on the Hill in the 1990s, when “there was nobody on our side who was a woman,” she said. She remembers watching then-Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) become a target of Democratic women who said men had no right to be talking about abortion rights

So far, the GOP’s fight against Planned Parenthood has been carried out in the three House committees: Energy and Commerce, Judiciary and Oversight. Men make up at least 80 percent of each panel.

Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), one of Pelosi’s appointees to the selected committee from the Judiciary Committee, said the lack of female Republican voices has been notable in both hearings this fall. The Judiciary committee includes just one Republican female.

“It’s the ‘select committee to attack women’s health,’” DelBene said, referring to Pelosi’s chosen nickname for the committee. “It’s incredibly important that we have women leading this conversation.”

Like the select committee probing the 2012 Benghazi attack, lawmakers on the panel maintain they want an investigation free of politics. But with the Planned Parenthood investigation likely to go into 2016, the elections will inevitably loom large.

“I don’t think there’s any way to discuss these issues that don’t have repercussions,” Schakowsky said. “So it will definitely, going into 2016, play into decisions that are made.”