Former vice president Joe Biden’s sudden reversal on allowing taxpayer funding for abortions prompted an uproar in the presidential race. But on Capitol Hill, Democrats show little sign they are planning to upend a long but uneasy truce on the issue.
Many of Biden’s rivals piled on, saying support for that language amounted to a betrayal of low-income women who were effectively being denied their reproductive rights. They included some of the 11 candidates who are current or former lawmakers and voted multiple times for spending bills that have included the provision.
Four of the Democratic candidates — Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), Seth Moulton (Mass.), Tim Ryan (Ohio) and Eric Swalwell (Calif.) — will face the issue as soon as next week. None on Friday ruled out voting for the bill.
“He knows that these spending bills aren’t perfect, but with the Senate and White House controlled by Republicans, he believes these are the best deals we are going to get to keep the government funded and move the country forward,” Ryan spokesman Cody Sibulo said in a statement Friday — two days after Ryan called the Hyde Amendment “a tax on millions of Americans seeking abortion.”
The delicate straddle Democrats are performing reflects a long-standing dilemma: The federal funding restriction is anathema to much of the party base, but lawmakers also have to deal with other threats from abortion rights opponents in Congress, as well as other spending fights. Even when Democrats held total control of Washington in 2009 and 2010, the Hyde Amendment persisted.
Conceding the 42-year-old provision has put Democrats in a better position over the years to fend off attacks on reproductive rights and other issues, as well as to preserve hard-fought wins such as the Title X family-planning program and other measures Republicans have sought to defund.
“Most Democrats want to repeal Hyde,” said Matt Dennis, a former House Appropriations Committee spokesman. “They also want to enact laws that increase funding for medical research, family planning, schools, Pell Grants and job training.”
Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, said Friday that this year’s fights were focused on reversing the Trump administration’s “gag rule” restricting health providers receiving federal funds from providing patients with information on abortions. The new bill also eliminates the funding of abstinence-only sex education programs and increases Title X funding to a new high of $400 million for fiscal 2020.
“While we loathe the amendment, the view was: Okay, let’s proceed in this fashion,” said DeLauro, arguing that Republican control of the White House and the Senate remains an obstacle to any change.
DeLauro and Democrats on the Appropriations Committee worked with colleagues and outside allies before moving forward with their spending bill — weeks before Biden’s position became prime campaign news.
That groundwork has earned them backing from the most influential abortion rights groups, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and NARAL Pro-Choice America. Executives from both groups said Friday that they were not opposing passage of the spending bill next week, citing the other advances and the futility of pursuing Hyde repeal with Trump in office and Republicans controlling the Senate.
“While we are disappointed and we are going to continue to work against Hyde, there are huge wins in the bill — especially when you talk about protecting birth control access for 4 million people,” said Erica Sackin, a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman.
The amendment — named after its initial sponsor, the late representative Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) — accounts for barely a page in the 667-page bill set for a House vote next week. It essentially says Medicaid will not cover the cost of an abortion unless the mother’s life is in danger or in cases of rape or incest.
Besides the four House members, seven presidential candidates serving in the Senate are likely to face a similar choice this year. All have voted multiple times for spending bills that included Hyde; none responded Friday to questions about whether they would do so in the future.
Several lawmakers seeking the presidency, however, offered varying digs at Biden on Friday for his flip. Moulton tweeted an acidic retort. “It takes courage to admit when you’re wrong, especially when those decisions affect millions of people. Now do the Iraq War,” he wrote, referring to Biden’s vote in 2002 to authorize the use of military force to invade Iraq.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) was gentler in an MSNBC interview, saying that standing by Hyde “would have been a big problem for him,” while Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), speaking on the same network, said he was “glad that he did it.”
Despite the sparring, Democrats are showing little appetite for turning votes for Hyde-laden bills into a political litmus test. Three House Democrats filed an amendment Friday to strip the provision from the appropriations bill, but it is unclear whether House leaders will even allow a vote, though a vocal group of members is pushing to take a stand.
“At some point, we need to deal with this head-on,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). “It’s bad public policy, it hurts women, it takes away choices. It needs to be repealed.”
But others are satisfied with a more-deliberate course. Destiny Lopez, co-director of All Above All, a coalition focused on overturning abortion prohibitions including Hyde, said it would be “somewhat misrepresenting the process and a candidate’s position” to equate a vote for a sprawling appropriations bill with support for Hyde.
Lopez said her group is more focused on building support for legislation — the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance, or EACH Woman, Act — that would overturn Hyde and eliminate other barriers to abortion. “We want to see our people articulate what their positions are and how they’re going to turn them into policy,” she said. “That’s where we’re at.”
That bill has 130 co-sponsors in the House and 22 in the Senate — well short of the level needed for immediate action in either chamber — but its backers see it as the best way to prepare for a day when Democrats expand their power in Washington.
At that point, DeLauro said, “Damn the torpedoes — full steam ahead.”
Rachael Bade, Colby Itkowitz and John Wagner contributed to this report.