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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 KirkDuckworth announces reelection bid Brave new world: Why we need a Senate Human Rights Commission  Senate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls 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.

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A second Republican, Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsTop female GOP senator compares Cheney ousting to 'cancel culture' Utah county GOP censures Romney over Trump impeachment vote House conservatives take aim at Schumer-led bipartisan China bill 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 CaseyA historic moment to truly honor mothers Democrats face big headaches on Biden's T spending plan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - GOP makes infrastructure play; Senate passes Asian hate crimes bill MORE Jr. (Pa.) and Joe ManchinJoe ManchinManchin, Biden huddle amid talk of breaking up T package Biden to go one-on-one with Manchin There will be no new immigration law under Biden, unless he changes course 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 McConnellManchin, Biden huddle amid talk of breaking up T package Romney: Removing Cheney from House leadership will cost GOP election votes The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden reverses Trump limits on transgender protections 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 JohnsonSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as White House continues to push vaccination effort Overnight Health Care: WHO-backed Covax gets a boost from Moderna Vaccine hesitancy among lawmakers slows return to normalcy on Capitol Hill MORE (R-Wis.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanHouse conservatives take aim at Schumer-led bipartisan China bill Strengthen CBP regulations to reduce opioid deaths House panel advances bipartisan retirement savings bill 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 ClintonAmerica departs Afghanistan as China arrives Young, diverse voters fueled Biden victory over Trump McConnell: Taliban could take over Afghanistan by 'the end of the year' 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 BoehnerBiden's relationship with top House Republican is frosty Maher chides Democrats: We 'suck the fun out of everything' Budowsky: Liz Cheney vs. conservatives in name only 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 BoehnerBiden's relationship with top House Republican is frosty Maher chides Democrats: We 'suck the fun out of everything' Budowsky: Liz Cheney vs. conservatives in name only 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 ReidBottom line Biden's first 100 days is stylistic 'antithesis' of Trump The Memo: Washington's fake debate on 'bipartisanship' 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 CornynThere will be no new immigration law under Biden, unless he changes course Tim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls Cornyn is most prolific tweeter in Congress so far in 2021 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 DonnellyRepublicans fret over divisive candidates Everybody wants Joe Manchin Centrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives 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.