Blocking poor people's access to healthcare is a terrible reason to shut down the government

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The Senate is set to vote on Monday on a measure to defund Planned Parenthood. It's unlikely that the bill will receive the 60 votes necessary to advance, and, even if it did, President Obama has said he will veto any proposal that would block funding to the organization, which is the largest provider of reproductive health services in the country.

While the vote to gut federal funds for Planned Parenthood might fail, the issue isn't going anywhere. In fact, it could turn more explosive come September.

That's because Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, one of several Republican presidential candidates to call for an end to federal funding for the organization, has floated the idea of shutting down the government if the Senate budget proposal fails.


In a comment to Politico, Cruz called the Senate measure a stunt and said that, when it comes to taking down Planned Parenthood, all options should be on the table.

Asked about a possible shutdown come September, Cruz said: “I would support any and all legislative efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. We do not need a legislative show-vote.”

In the House, Mick Mulvaney, a Republican from South Carolina, called funding for Planned Parenthood "one of those line-in-the-sand" issues. “Every time we say we don’t want to spend money on something, the answer is it will provoke a shutdown,” he told Politico.

While House and Senate Republicans are nearly unanimous in the call to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood (Susan Collins of Maine is a notable exception), the possibility of forcing the issue through a shutdown is much more divisive.


Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham, also Republican presidential contenders who have denounced Planned Parenthood, signaled that they oppose using a shutdown to score a legislative victory over the organization.

But none of this may do much to dissuade Cruz, who was also the architect of the 2013 government shutdown. And that shutdown, you'll recall, was also over healthcare. Specifically, healthcare for low-income people. The same issues are at play again with the push to cut off Planned Parenthood.


The 2013 shutdown was a standoff over the Affordable Care Act. Then as now, Cruz's rhetoric was heated and at times hard to follow: he compared support for the new healthcare law to appeasing Nazi Germany. He also compared it to the moon.

"By any measure, Obamacare is a far less intimidating foe than those [like Nazi Germany] that I have discussed, with the possible exception of the moon," he said during his 21-hour speech on the Senate floor. "The moon might be as intimidating as Obamacare."


That shutdown brought the government to a halt for the first two weeks of October. During that time, federal workers went without pay, federal grants for programs like Head Start were frozen, and service providers across the country were forced to make contingency plans about how long they could weather the shutdown.

Among those hardest hit were domestic violence shelters and other community programs, many of which had already been working on tight budgets.


As I reported at the time, within days of the 2013 shutdown, funds for victims assistance programs like the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and the Victims of Crimes Act (VOCA) were frozen, throwing providers into a panic about what would happen if the shutdown dragged into the fall.

“We’re still recovering from when the economy crashed in 2008. We used all of our reserves just to stay open during that crisis,” Jeanette Aston, the executive director of the Mt. Graham Safe House in Safford, Arizona, told Salon. “There are no more cuts to be made in this staff; if we continue to lose funding, we’re looking at a loss of services.”


Little has changed in the funding landscape for service providers during the last two years, and the outcome of a shutdown could have similarly dire effects. That the consequences of a shutdown would be acutely felt by women makes the Republican packaging of this showdown over Planned Parenthood—ostensibly about women's health and safety—all the more bizarre.

And two years later, the law that Cruz compared to the Nazis (and the moon, for whatever reason) has expanded health insurance coverage to nearly 17 million people. A 2015 analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation on California's implementation of the ACA found that low-income people overwhelmingly benefited from expanded coverage.


Planned Parenthood plays a similar role in expanding coverage to low-income people. According to its most recent public disclosures, Planned Parenthood provided 2.7 million people with reproductive health services in 2013. Its national network of affiliate clinics provided nearly 400,000 Pap smears, 500,000 breast exams, and 4.5 million STI tests and associated treatments. These are the services being targeted by a potential government shutdown.

So the government shutdown, which is supposed to be a last-ditch resort if Congress is in a face-off with the president, has become, for a certain segment of the GOP, its preferred weapon to deprive low-income people of access to healthcare.


The human consequences of a loss of services are clear. The political consequences are a bit murkier. The question is whether or not being seen as going after Planned Parenthood—and the millions of people who access services at affiliate clinics—will help or hurt the GOP. Cruz, who did not respond to Fusion's request for comment, is likely focused on his base: a red-meat constituency of conservatives who want more than just "show votes" to bring down the the family planning provider.

But shutdown skeptics like Paul and Graham are likely on to something: using the nuclear option on Planned Parenthood may fuel support among the GOP's anti-abortion base—but it could alienate voters who think that stunting about abortion politics on the backs of nearly 3 million people isn't a good look.

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