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Ignoring the polls, GOP sees no risk in Planned Parenthood shutdown fight

Anti-abortion activists hold a rally opposing federal funding for Planned Parenthood in Washington on July 28. (Photo by Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)
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On Capitol Hill, the question could be heard in every scrum. What would come next, if the bill to cut funds to Planned Parenthood failed? Would Republicans allow the government to shut down? Would they? Would they?

To a man, Republicans laughed it off. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) told reporters several times that any shutdown would be the fault of Democrats, who'd have to be "willing to try to shut down the government in order to force continued taxpayer funding from an organization that has now been caught on film apparently admitting to multiple felonies."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the hardiest critic of the 2013 shutdown, surprised reporters by agreeing with Cruz. "I don't think it's about a government shutdown," he said. "It's about doing what's necessary to stop a dubious use of American taxpayers' dollars."

Any surprise about the Republicans' calmness here, or their willingness to float a spending fight tied to Planned Parenthood, ignores the lesson that the party learned in 2013. It also ignores the power that Republicans see in this issue, ever since the release of videos which show Planned Parenthood executives coldly discussing the dismemberment of fetuses for (legal) tissue research. Republicans do not fear the politics of a "shutdown" fight, and they believe that Democrats fear the politics of defending Planned Parenthood.

That logic survived a serious test on Tuesday. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the lead sherpa of the bill, had told The Washington Post that it might attract two to four Democrats. Only two Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), voted his way. Both come from red states, and both are up for reelection in what could be a dangerous 2018 midterm. Democrats were not abandoning Planned Parenthood.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) slams Republicans, accusing them of trying to "take away a woman's right to control her own body." (Video: Senator Elizabeth Warren)

Give it time, said Republicans. "In a representative democracy, a lot is going to figure on how the American people weigh in," said freshman Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) "Every video has been worse than the previous, and I think some minds can be changed. At some point a moral conscience can be pricked, and even issues thought to be settled can be revisited."

Polling does not back that up. Democrats, who have either refused to weigh in on the videos themselves or briefly criticized them, have stuck to a script about the need to keep funding Planned Parenthood. A Monmouth University poll taken since the start of the scandal found that only 42 percent of voters favor defunding the organization, compared to 47 percent who don't. An NBC News poll released after the Senate vote found that 45 percent of Americans had a positive view of Planned Parenthood, compared to 30 percent who didn't.

Republicans are either ignoring those numbers or betting that they will shift under the "each video's worst than the last" theory. They think Americans will grow sick of fetal body parts stories before they get angsty about a shutdown.

"Congress should not succumb to threats on the question of appropriating the taxpayers money," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). "That's our fundamental responsibility, to fund or not fund. It cannot be that congress gets to the point where the president yells 'boo,' and we hide under our desks."

Just as importantly, many of Republicans remember the 2013 shutdown as a success -- one that the party elite and the media totally misread.

"You and a lot of folks in the press said what a disaster it was to stand up to Obamacare," Cruz told Fox News' Chris Wallace after the 2014 elections, speaking euphemistically of the shutdown. "Let me point out, we just had a historic election where we won nine seats in the Senate, we retired Harry Reid, we just got the biggest majority in the House since the 1920s, and the biggest issue we campaigned on was Obamacare."

Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell -- who said today that there would be no new shutdown -- can point out a causation/correlation fallacy here. But they cannot dispute the results -- they won the Senate. Two of the Republicans now saying that they could tie Planned Parenthood funding to a spending bill, then blame the president for a shutdown, are currently running for president. In a Tuesday interview with Hugh Hewitt, Donald Trump agreed with both Cruz and Paul.

"If the Republicans stuck together you could have done it with Obamacare also, but the Republicans decided not to stick together and they left a few people out there like Ted Cruz," Trump said. "You know, they left a lot of the people who really went in and wanted to do the job and you know what? If they had stuck together they would have won that battle. I think you have to in this case also, yes."

One of the Republican arguments, somewhat lost in the furor of debate, was that they'd happily fund all of Planned Parenthood's "women's health" services through other means. In a weekend interview with CNN, Paul did not balk at the idea of continuing the Affordable Care Act's level of funding for community health services. The version of "defunding" that lost in the Senate did exactly that.

"In Louisiana, there's two Planned Parenthoods and 160 community health centers," said Cassidy. "What this legislation does is direct the funding toward the health centers and away from an organization that has become really kind of sick."

If Tuesday was the front-page showdown, Wednesday was supposed to be the start of that compassionate argument -- all wrapped up and ready for the congressional recess. In a speech at the Southern Baptist Convention's conference in Nashville, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush attempted to explain the new frame.

"You could take dollar for dollar -- although I'm not sure we need half a billion dollars for women's health issues -- but if you took dollar for dollar, there are many fine community health issues," said Bush.

That little jibe at the current spending levels allowed Democrats to attack Bush, and glide ride past the community health center statement.