As lawmakers return to their home districts after wrapping up an epic battle over raising the country’s borrowing limit, it’s worth pondering why the biggest spending fight of the 112th Congress featured almost no debate on a matter that has animated both parties’ bases: social issues.
Compare the debt-ceiling fight – which ended with a deal to cut federal spending more than $2 trillion over the next decade – to the battle over averting a government shutdown in April – which ended with a $38 billion trim in spending for the rest of the current fiscal year.
Back during the shutdown debate, lawmakers spent weeks sparring over an amendment sponsored by Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) that would have barred Planned Parenthood from receiving federal funding, culminating in a late-night, contentious three hours of debate on the on the House floor in February.
The amendment, which was included in the House-passed version of the 2011 funding bill, became a major factor in the shutdown negotiations. Once the Planned Parenthood issue was introduced into the debate, any funding compromise that didn’t include the ban risked the backing of social conservatives, while any deal that barred the funding would be fought by most Democrats.
In the end, Republicans came up short in the broader Planned Parenthood battle. The final shutdown deal called only for a Senate vote on the amendment, not passage. But GOP leaders did secure a provision banning the District of Columbia from using its own funds to provide abortion services to low-income women, the subject of a perennial tug-of-war on Capitol Hill.
Interest groups on both sides of the Planned Parenthood debate joined the fray by airing dueling TV ads against vulnerable lawmakers.
The abortion funding debate also heated up over two bills introduced in the House earlier this year: the Protect Life Act, sponsored by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), and the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, authored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.). The former passed the House in early May, but the funding measure remains in the House Ways and Means Committee.
But the debt-ceiling battle that has gripped Washington for the past three months has pretty much ignored social issues. No members on either side of the aisle sought to attach any policy riders to the debt-limit deal.
Pence, who led the charge against Planned Parenthood last spring, is a conservative Republican who is running to succeed Mitch Daniels as Indiana governor. He became a key vote of support for House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) debt-ceiling plan late last week and was also among the 174 House Republicans voting “yes” on the final debt compromise.
On the Democratic side, lawmakers who had seized on spending fights to accuse Republicans of waging a “war on women” made no such arguments during the spending cuts debate. And outside groups such as NARAL and National Right to Life were largely silent.
Part of the reason for the silence: there was no legislative vehicle for attaching policy riders to the debt-limit package.
The debt debate was the biggest spending fight of the past several years, but the battle was focused mainly on the top-line spending numbers for each year, not the line-by-line items in the federal budget. Hence lawmakers were not able to include abortion restrictions or other riders that they could attach if they were considering an appropriations bill.
Another factor: The fight was so high-stakes – the country risked defaulting on its debt for the first time ever – that few lawmakers were probably willing to make demands on smaller issues. That would include regional issues such as expanded drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, or the delisting of the gray wolf from the endangered species list.
But social issues won’t stand in the wings for too long. Some of these battles will come this fall, when the appropriations and budget committees wrangle over budget spending details — a discussion that is likely to only get thornier.
Washington Post staff writers Paul Kane and Ben Pershing contributed to this report.