GOP leaders hope Right to Life can help head off shutdown
WASHINGTON — Hoping to prevent the Republican uproar over the Planned Parenthood videos from snowballing into a government shutdown, GOP leaders are turning to one of Planned Parenthood's most implacable foes: the National Right to Life Committee.
Some conservative lawmakers want the GOP-controlled Congress to approve money financing the government only if it also blocks federal payments to Planned Parenthood. Failure to provide funds for agencies would lead to a partial government shutdown on Oct. 1.
Though Republican leaders would love to eliminate Planned Parenthood's federal funds, they fear that voters in next year's elections would blame the GOP if the fight escalated into a federal shutdown. They're trying to placate conservatives with free-standing bills blocking Planned Parenthood's funds and toughening anti-abortion laws, measures that are separate from legislation keeping federal offices open.
Riding to the rescue, GOP leaders hope, is National Right to Life. The nation's largest and perhaps most influential anti-abortion group, Right to Life yearns to erase Planned Parenthood's federal funds but doubts the wisdom of forcing a shutdown in the name of doing that.
This issue rose again to the forefront with the release this summer of Planned Parenthood videos secretly recorded by abortion foes, who contended the videos show that Planned Parenthood illegally profits by selling tissue from aborted fetuses to medical researchers.
Planned Parenthood has said the videos were deceptively edited and it has done nothing wrong. It says a handful of its nearly 700 clinics have legally accepted payments covering their expenses for the tissue.
Right to Life's leaders released a statement this week endorsing a bill by Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., halting federal payments to Planned Parenthood for a year. But it was pointedly silent about the merits of enmeshing a cutoff of Planned Parenthood's money with legislation keeping government functioning.
"We want people to think about what a government shutdown would do," National Right to Life President Carol Tobias said in an interview Wednesday. She called President Barack Obama "an ideologue" who backs Planned Parenthood and said, "As long as he's in that Oval Office with a veto pen, it's difficult to see how we could win that battle."
Obama was meeting at the White House Thursday with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Tobias said Right to Life is concerned that a shutdown over Planned Parenthood could harm the anti-abortion cause in the long run. She said polling shows that abortion opponents oppose federal shutdowns, and said she worried that news coverage of a government closure would focus on key federal workers who would be unpaid and face problems like unpaid mortgages.
"If we want to save babies, if we want to defund Planned Parenthood, we have to put a pro-life president in the White House" in next year's elections, she said.
GOP leaders are citing Right to Life's qualms as they try steering rank-and-file Republicans away from a shutdown showdown.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said of Right to Life on Wednesday, "It's a strategy they don't think makes much sense because it doesn't succeed."
Citing a certain veto by Obama and Democrats' derailment of a Senate bill last month halting Planned Parenthood's funds, McConnell said, "We're not going to engage in exercises in futility."
In an interview, No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Cornyn of Texas said, "The most important thing the pro-life community is concerned about is they don't want to be associated with a failed strategy which will actually tarnish and impede their ability to promote pro-life legislation in the future."
In closed-door meetings with Republicans, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has also warned that a shutdown would hurt pro-life efforts, GOP aides have said.
House Republicans privately discussed tactics late Wednesday but made no final decisions, lawmakers said.
One option that leaders offered was blocking Planned Parenthood's money with a bill unrelated to financing the government, but with procedural protections against a Democratic Senate filibuster. That would make it likelier to reach Obama's desk, though it would still certainly be vetoed.
Conservatives said bills not tied to government funding are meaningless show votes — legislation that amounts mostly to political symbolism — because Obama could veto them without consequences.
"The American public is not for that," said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky. Added Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., "It's the same old excuse to do nothing."
By Friday, the House is expected to approve Black's bill halting Planned Parenthood's funds for a year and a measure by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., setting criminal penalties for medical providers who don't try saving babies born live during abortions.
The Senate is expected to debate legislation next week barring most late-term abortions.
Senate Democrats seem likely to block all three measures. The White House said late Wednesday that Obama would veto the two House bills because the result would be "limiting women's health care choices."
Planned Parenthood gets about $450 million in federal funds annually, the Congressional Budget Office says, virtually none of which can be used for abortions. That's a third of its $1.3 billion budget.
— AP reporter Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.