WASHINGTON – House and Senate Republican leaders, pressed on one side by minority Democrats and on the other by GOP conservatives, are desperately trying to devise a stopgap funding measure that will keep the federal government operating beyond the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
The complex and evolving situation centers on funding for Planned Parenthood, the nationwide women’s health network under fire from political foes for its handling of tissue recovered from aborted fetuses for research purposes. Dozens of conservative lawmakers have vowed to oppose any budget plan that directs money toward the organization.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have the votes to stop a vote on any budget measure that defunds Planned Parenthood, maintaining such a move would deprive about 650,000 women of its services.
The result is a stand-off, with the odds of a second government shutdown in three years growing by the moment.
“I hope we can make it and not have to see the government shut down again,” said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada. “We’ve seen that before. The American people have been to that rodeo before. And who have suffered? The American people. I would hope that the Republican leader has a plan to help us get out of this morass that they’ve created.”
“We’ll do everything we can within reason to make sure that the American people are treated fairly in the upcoming spending bills. But we have to get there by Oct. 1.”
Complicating the matter is the tenuous position of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who may wind up needing the support of more than a few Democrats to get any temporary funding measure, known as a continuing resolution, passed.
Boehner already faces assault from his party’s right wing. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) has filed a resolution, with four co-sponsors, seeking to declare the office of the Speaker of the House vacant, a move that would oust Boehner from his powerful slot.
So any move by Boehner to seek support from Democrats for a continuing resolution would almost certainly spark a coup attempt from members of the House Freedom Caucus, consisting of about 42 right-wing Republican lawmakers who would prefer closing the government’s doors to continued Planned Parenthood funding.
“Given the appalling revelations surrounding Planned Parenthood, we cannot in good moral conscience vote to send taxpayer money to this organization while still fulfilling our duty to represent our constituents,” the Freedom Caucus stated in a release from the office of Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the group’s chairman. “We must therefore oppose any spending measure that contains funding for Planned Parenthood.”
Reaching agreement on funding the federal government has proved problematic for years as philosophical divisions between lawmakers have grown. Under regular order, both legislative chambers are supposed to adopt 12 appropriations measures no later than Sept. 30 to keep the ball rolling.
Lawmakers proved unable to complete the task this year and therefore must adopt a resolution to maintain operations at agreed-upon levels until some spending compromise can be reached for the 2016 fiscal year.
A continuing resolution probably was going to prove difficult to achieve even before the Planned Parenthood controversy, with the Freedom Caucus and other lawmakers complaining about profligate spending. Questions about funding the women’s health organization complicate the situation further.
The controversy began in July when the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion group, released a series of videos, shot undercover, purportedly showing Planned Parenthood officials haggling with potential customers – actually representatives of the Center for Medical Progress — over the sale of tissue recovered from aborted fetuses.
Profiting from the distribution of fetal tissue for research purposes violates federal law. Planned Parenthood, and several independent fact-checkers, maintain the tapes were edited to mislead the public and Planned Parenthood maintains it did nothing wrong.
Nonetheless, congressional conservatives sought immediate defunding for the group even though, under current law, Planned Parenthood receives no federal money to perform abortions. More than 30 House Republicans sent a letter to leadership declaring they would oppose any budget deal, stopgap or otherwise, that provides funds to the organization.
That created an obvious problem. Boehner can only afford to lose a maximum of 28 Republican on a spending bill if every Democrat lines up in opposition. And Democrats would be expected to oppose any spending bill that defunds Planned Parenthood.
Boehner probably could get a continuing resolution passed that defunds Planned Parenthood relying solely on Republican votes. But the measure can’t pass the Senate, where 60 out of 100 votes are needed to break a filibuster. Since the GOP holds only 54 seats, and almost every Democrat would oppose defunding, it couldn’t pass the upper chamber.
And even if it did, President Obama would veto it.
On the other side, the Senate could pass what is called a “clean” continuing resolution, which maintains current funding levels until differences can be resolved. The House could, too, but only with the help of Democrats.
Hence the dilemma, and the clock is ticking.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, hopes to break the ice on Thursday, offering a continuing resolution in the upper chamber that would fund the government through Dec. 11 while killing federal funding for Planned Parenthood for at least a year, redirecting the money to other health providers. It also would increase defense spending by $13 billion.
The proposal, McConnell said, “presents the best option to keep the government funded, to protect women’s health and to press pause on funding for a scandal-plagued organization as we investigate further into some truly shocking allegations.”
It won’t survive a filibuster from Democrats.
“Every senator in this body knows this bill is going nowhere,” Reid said. “This attack is a waste of time. It will accomplish nothing. By holding today’s vote, the Republican leader is pandering to the right-wing extremists in his party who are willing to take our government hostage to try and score political points. The time for partisan politics is over. The Senate and our government cannot afford to be subjected to meaningless attacks on women’s health.”
Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn, of Texas, acknowledged the ploy is unlikely to succeed.
“I think, given the president’s opposition and Democrats’ opposition, at some point, I anticipate there will be a clean (continuing resolution),” he said.
The idea, lawmakers said, is to prove to House conservatives that a defunding provision won’t make it through the Senate and they should acquiesce to keep the doors open.
But questions remain about the strategy’s ultimate success. The House Republican caucus is slated to meet sometime Thursday, after Pope Francis’ morning address, to discuss the best way to proceed and there are sure to be objections over any spending bill that fails to defund Planned Parenthood.
“The recently released undercover Planned Parenthood videos are beyond disturbing,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). “They are outright appalling and show activity that is not only morally wrong but appears to be potentially illegal as well. These videos raise serious questions about this organization’s use of taxpayer funds that cannot go unanswered. It is our duty as members of Congress to ensure taxpayer money is not misused.”
Even if a continuing resolution succeeds the story won’t end here. The chambers at some point will have to develop a spending plan to fill out the remainder of the 2016 fiscal year. Democrats and Republicans are as far apart as they possibly can be on budget priorities – including Planned Parenthood. Democrats, with strategic use of the filibuster, can deflect Republican incursions and draw howls from conservatives who nonetheless expect Republicans to achieve their goals despite the rules.