Republican congressional leaders, hoping to avert another government shutdown in two weeks, have embarked on a series of maneuvers in hopes of quelling the conservative anger in their party that is threatening to blow up plans to keep the government funded and functioning.
But the efforts to channel the conservatives’ fury over Planned Parenthood away from the government funding debate appear unlikely to succeed. One result is that Democrats, the minority party in both chambers, could have significant leverage going into spending negotiations ahead of a Sept. 30 deadline.
A series of undercover videos produced by antiabortion activists and released in recent weeks have many Republicans, mostly in the House, demanding that Congress strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding when it considers legislation this month to keep the government operating.
But GOP leaders have balked, citing the risk of a politically costly government shutdown, given the opposition of President Obama and congressional Democratic leaders. “Listen, the goal here is not to shut down the government,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said last week. “The goal is to stop these horrific practices of organizations selling baby parts.”
That was a reference to the undercover videos, which captured Planned Parenthood executives speaking frankly about the harvesting of fetal tissue for research.
To mollify conservatives, the House and Senate are set to vote on stand-alone antiabortion bills that would allow lawmakers to weigh in on the divisive issue without risking a high-stakes showdown over government funding.
The House is expected to vote this week on a bill, sponsored by Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), that would defund Planned Parenthood and another, sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), that would offer legal protection to an infant who survives a failed abortion.
The Senate, meanwhile, could take up a measure that passed the House in May that would criminalize abortions performed after the 20th week of pregnancy. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has announced his intention to vote on that bill, although it is unlikely to get the 60 Senate votes needed to proceed toward passage.
But holding those votes appears unlikely to satisfy the most ardent Planned Parenthood opponents, particularly those in the House, who believe the fight is as much about Boehner’s leadership as it is about cutting off federal support for the group.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) is one of many conservatives who have warned GOP leaders against holding “show votes.”
“Leadership is going to have to choose: Do they want it to be a talking point, or do they actually want to do something about it?” he said last week at a gathering of conservative members.
As of last week, 31 House members had signed a letter indicating they would not support any funding bill that did not exclude Planned Parenthood — enough to ensure that Republicans could not pass a “clean” funding extension without Democratic votes.
Boehner loyalists say that those demands give Democrats leverage in the funding debate while doing nothing to enhance the probability that Planned Parenthood will be defunded. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of Boehner’s leadership team, pointed to the 2013 shutdown: “I think October 2013 — where you had something as extraordinarily unpopular as Obamacare, you shut down the government, [and it] still didn’t work — suggests that’s probably not a winning strategy.”
Boehner is convening a series of “listening sessions” aimed at finding a way to harness conservative rancor over Planned Parenthood without risking a shutdown. Meanwhile, House committees continue to hold hearings on the undercover videos and take up legislation designed to address the objections they have generated.
“It’s not just funding,” Cole said. “We’re looking for the best ideas and best way forward.”
Congressional Democrats are poised to exploit the Republican division. They’ve already named a price for backing a short-term funding extension: no unrelated policy riders or attempts to undo Obama policy initiatives in the stopgap measure, with long-term negotiations over increases in domestic spending to follow.
“It’s not going to be a vote for nothing,” said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.). “If you want our votes, talk to us.”
Democrats are ready to negotiate, not least because they seem to have public support for their position. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 41 percent of voters would blame Republicans for a shutdown, compared with one-third who would blame Democrats.
House and Senate Democrats have been discussing their priorities and strategy and are in frequent contact with the White House, according to several leadership aides. But formal spending talks with GOP leaders have not begun.
Conservatives, meanwhile, say Republican leaders should be more determined to pass legislation that “actually reflects Republican values.” Many hard-liners — including some who made statements regretting the 2013 shutdown — say that Obama would be at fault for a shutdown and Republicans would benefit politically.
“If he vetoes it, and we can’t override that veto, the government will shut down because of the president, because he values the ability of organizations like Planned Parenthood to kill babies in the womb so they can systematically sell their body parts,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.).
But there is little chance a spending bill that defunds Planned Parenthood would make it to Obama’s desk: A Senate bill to defund the organization fell well short of the 60 votes necessary to proceed in an Aug. 3 test vote.
And with the exception of presidential candidates Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Rand Paul (Ky.), few Senate Republicans have pressed to make Planned Parenthood an issue in government funding talks. “There are lots of different options we’re looking at right now,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a co-sponsor of the defunding bill.