Senate abortion fight intensifies

Senate abortion fight intensifies
© Francis Rivera

Senate Republicans are turning up the heat on Planned Parenthood, setting up a vote for Monday to defund the organization that is making some of its members squirm.

Sen. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkLiberal veterans group urges Biden to name Duckworth VP On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Biden campaign releases video to explain 'what really happened in Ukraine' MORE (Ill.), the most vulnerable Senate Republican up for reelection next year, signaled Wednesday that he would oppose the legislation, citing the preventive health services that Planned Parenthood provides.


A second Republican, Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus GOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday Senate passes extension of application deadline for PPP small-business loans MORE (Maine), also indicated she would likely oppose the measure, citing the lack of alternative health providers in her state. Democratic Sens. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Cure Violence Global founder Gary Slutkin says violence and epidemics follow same patterns; Global death toll surpasses half a million 21 senators urge Pentagon against military use to curb nationwide protests Overnight Health Care: Trump says US 'terminating' relationship with WHO | Cuomo: NYC on track to start reopening week of June 8 | COVID-19 workplace complaints surge MORE Jr. (Pa.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinManchin draws line against repealing legislative filibuster Steyer endorses Markey in Massachusetts Senate primary The Hill's Morning Report - COVID-19 alarms escalate; Trump under fire over Russia MORE (W.Va.), both abortion opponents, lined up against the bill as well.

The early opposition threatens to leave Republicans well short of the 60 votes they would need to move forward and potentially shy of even a simple majority.

But Republican leaders aren’t backing down and appear to think they have the upper hand, after the release of a series of undercover videos in which Planned Parenthood officials candidly discuss the price of fetal tissue from abortions for use in medical research. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFormer HUD Secretary: Congress 'should invest 0B in direct rental assistance' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House approves .5T green infrastructure plan | Rubio looks to defense bill to block offshore drilling, but some fear it creates a loophole | DC-area lawmakers push for analysis before federal agencies can be relocated House approves .5T green infrastructure plan MORE (R-Ky.) pressured Democrats to support ending federal funding for the organization in a floor speech Wednesday morning, and then he hit the message again at a press conference in the afternoon. 

He and other supporters of the bill emphasize the measure would redistribute the Planned Parenthood money — which totals some $500 million per year — to other organizations that provide women’s health services.

That move, which was discussed in a meeting in McConnell’s office Tuesday afternoon, could allow Republicans to dodge attacks from Democrats that they are slashing women’s healthcare options. The leading bill to defund Planned Parenthood in the House, which has 148 co-sponsors as of Wednesday, would not reallocate the funding. 

“We introduced legislation last night that would ensure taxpayer dollars for women’s health are spent on women’s health, not a scandal-plagued political lobbying giant,” McConnell said Wednesday. 

Republican senators, led by Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa), talked up the legislation at a press conference in front of a sign that read: “Fund women’s health, not Planned Parenthood.” 

Lawmakers facing tough reelection campaigns, such as Sens. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday Senate Republicans defend Trump's response on Russian bounties Postal Service boosted by increased use during pandemic: report MORE (R-Wis.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Democratic proposal to extend 0 unemployment checks Senate Democrats offer plan to extend added jobless benefits during pandemic Senators press IRS chief on stimulus check pitfalls MORE (R-Ohio), have said they back the bill, though only Johnson was an official co-sponsor as of Wednesday afternoon.

Democrats have almost universally stood behind Planned Parenthood while treading carefully around the issue of fetal tissue research.

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublican Nicole Malliotakis wins New York primary to challenge Max Rose Trump's evangelical approval dips, but remains high How Obama can win back millions of Trump voters for Biden MORE, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, called images from the Planned Parenthood videos “disturbing” in an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader this week. But she also defended the organization, saying, “Planned Parenthood for more than a century has done a lot of really good work for women.”

“Hillary Clinton is calling these Planned Parenthood images ‘disturbing,’ and I agree,” Ernst said Wednesday.

The Senate vote is expected to take place Monday, three weeks after the first undercover video surfaced. Congressional investigations into the videos, ordered by House GOP leaders, have just begun.

The group behind the videos, The Center for Medical Progress, has warned it will release as many as a dozen more videos in the coming weeks, putting Planned Parenthood and its allies on the defensive.

Still, while the GOP is largely united against abortion rights, a vote to defund Planned Parenthood could pose some danger for the party heading into an election season in which it hopes to recapture the White House.

“It’s a little bit risky on both sides,” said Katie Packer Gage, a Republican strategist specializing in messaging to female voters. “We don’t know where this thread that’s being pulled on Planned Parenthood is going to lead us.”

In the House, Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLott says lobbying firm cut ties to prevent him from taking clients Lobbying firm cuts ties to Trent Lott amid national anti-racism protests Bush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT MORE (R-Ohio) has taken a more cautious approach about a Planned Parenthood vote. While stressing that he supports defunding the group, his office said this week that he would wait for congressional investigations to conclude before pursuing legislative action.

“You don’t want to rush too rapidly. What if something is not accurate? What if there are some problems?” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLott says lobbying firm cut ties to prevent him from taking clients Lobbying firm cuts ties to Trent Lott amid national anti-racism protests Bush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT MORE ally, said Wednesday, adding that the House’s vote later this fall “makes sure the evidence is adequately vetted.” 

Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidMcConnell warns Democrats not to change filibuster rule Filibuster reform gains steam with Democrats The Hill's Morning Report - Trump wants executive order on policing; silent on pending bills MORE (D-Nev.) has hit back hard at Republican efforts, saying the defunding bill is “disguised as a way to help women.”

“No matter how you package it, it’s an attack on women,” he said, vowing that Democrats would block the vote. 

Supporters of Planned Parenthood stress that the group is banned under the Hyde Amendment from using federal funding for abortions, except in limited cases, and note the organization’s larger role in the healthcare system.

Kirk echoed that argument in a statement to The Hill.

“I do not plan to cut access to basic health care and contraception for women, the majority of whom have no other resources,” said Kirk, who is supportive of abortion rights.

Collins, who is also an abortion rights supporter, pushed back on the idea that the Planned Parenthood money would be redistributed. 

“The problem is, in my state and many others, Planned Parenthood is the primary provider of women’s health services in certain parts of my state,” she said. “[I] don’t know how you would ensure that all of the patients of Planned Parenthood could be absorbed by alternative care providers.”

Even if all Republicans supported the bill, Democrats are nearly certain to filibuster it.

Still, GOP leaders had hoped to at least bring the Senate’s anti-abortion Democrats on board. Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynGOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday New legislation required to secure US semiconductor leadership GOP skeptical of polling on Trump MORE (R-Texas) said Wednesday he hoped the bill would be bipartisan, and Ernst said they had “some efforts on reaching out” to Democratic offices.

So far, two Democratic senators who oppose abortion say they do not support the current bill. The office of a third, Sen. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyEx-Sen. Joe Donnelly endorses Biden Lobbying world 70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents MORE (Ind.), did not return multiple requests for comment.

Manchin, who is seeking reelection next fall, does not support the bill now, but “still wants to review a lot of the facts,” spokesman Jonathan Kott said. 

Casey also said Wednesday he opposes Ernst’s bill because the Planned Parenthood funding is directed to programs that “reduce unintended pregnancies and, as a result, reduce the number of abortions,” as well as services including cervical- and breast-cancer screenings.