Making good on a threat that's been looming since June, the House voted on Friday to freeze all federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
The final vote was 241-187, and largely held party lines. All but three Republicans—Reps. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, Robert Dold of Illinois, and Richard Hanna of New York—voted to freeze federal funds for the next year, a move that, according to a report from the Congressional Budget Office, could greatly reduce access to services for more than 600,000 people and result in thousands of unplanned births. Two Democrats voted with the Republican majority: Reps. Dan Lipinski of Illinois and Collin Peterson of Minnesota.
A Senate bill to defund Planned Parenthood already failed once, and this measure is expected to fail there again. President Obama has also said that he would veto any bill to cut funding for the reproductive health provider and other measures—like the 20-week abortion ban the Senate is planning to take up—to further restrict abortion access.
So the vote today was largely for show, but what's happening in Congress is more than just political theater. A handful of Republicans in both chambers—including Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz—have threatened to push for a government shutdown if Planned Parenthood maintains its funding. Congress now has until Sept. 30 to agree on how to keep the government running, even if temporarily.
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In 2013, Cruz made good on his threat to shut down the government over the Affordable Care Act, leaving thousands of federal workers and government contractors without paychecks, freezing essential programs—including block grants that fund domestic violence programs and essential education programs like Head Start—and closing up national parks. (I was in Joshua Tree, Ca., the day the 2013 shutdown started, and watched as road blocks lining park entrances went up along the desert roads.)
With a possible shutdown back on the table, the country is bracing itself for a possible repeat. It's a strange place to be considering what started this whole mess.
The spectacle that's unfolded in the months since the Center for Medical Progress released five secretly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood employees discussing fetal tissue and organ donation is just the most recent cover for a longstanding effort to cut off the organization's federal funds.
The videos have stirred up considerable outrage among anti-abortion politicians and activists, but so far, five state investigations into the organization's operations and a Congressional committee's investigation into the videos haven't found any evidence of wrongdoing.
But Republicans have maintained that there may be evidence of wrongdoing that they just haven't found yet, and are trying to take basic healthcare for 2.7 million people—and potentially the entire government—hostage in the meantime.
“Most people think that this is common sense. If there is reason to investigate, then there is reason to withhold taxpayer dollars during that period of time,” Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who sponsored the bill and oversaw the floor debate, said Friday. “There is bipartisan opposition from men and women to this practice.” As the Hill noted, Blackburn put distance between Friday's vote and the shutdown threat, saying it was not about shuttering the government.
Democrats see it differently. “The Republicans just want to shut the government down if we don’t fund Planned Parenthood. That’s what they’re all about,” said Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone, who oversaw the House Energy and Commerce Committee's investigation into the Center for Medical Progress' videos.
“No wrongdoing was shown," Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Colorado, said on the floor. "There’s no criminal charges, there’s no charges at all, pending against Planned Parenthood.”
At least some House Republicans pushing to cut off the organization's funding have been candid that evidence isn't the point.
“I don’t know whether we’re ever going to be able to answer that question, whether it was illegal for them to do what they were doing,” Rep. Raúl Labrador, an Idaho Republican, said last week during the House hearing. "I don’t know if it was illegal… but it was immoral, what was seen on that video."
Rep. Ted Poe of Texas echoed the sentiment: “The issue is not whether there’s been a crime committed or not,” he said last week. “This issue is whether or not taxpayers should fund Planned Parenthood.”
Ask the taxpayers, though, and they say "yes, we should."
According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last month, 54% of the public supports federal funding for the organization. And 71% want to see Congress reach an agreement to keep the government open rather than defund Planned Parenthood.
So what happens now?
Congress needs to reach an agreement to fund the government before the end of the month. At least 28 Republicans have signed a pledge saying they will shut the government down if that agreement contains funding for Planned Parenthood. President Obama has promised to veto any measure to do that. Congressional leadership—in the minority and majority—are frantically working behind close doors to reach some kind of temporary deal while anti-abortion politicians—including every one of the 11 Republicans at the presidential debate this week—bluster about cutting off Planned Parenthood's funds.
It's basically a high-stakes game of chicken. And while it plays out, hundreds of thousands of people are left to watch as their access to pap smears, birth control, cancer screenings, and STI tests get taken on and off (and on and off, and on and off…) the chopping block.