National Catholic Register: ‘Big Abortion’ vs. American taxpayers: Who won the budget standoff?

This article first appeared online at The National Catholic Register on April 12, 2011.

Budget Showdown Fallout: ‘Big Abortion’ vs. American taxpayers: Who won the budget standoff?
by Joan Frawley Desmond

WASHINGTON — Last month, Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., described Capitol Hill’s escalating budget standoff as “Big Abortion vs. American Taxpayers.” That forecast turned out to be prescient: The showdown ended late April 8, after Republicans agreed to a truce on their effort to defund Planned Parenthood in exchange for Democratic budgetary concessions.

The agreement was cemented just two hours before a deadline for shutting down the federal government. While both parties sought to claim victory, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was seen as the biggest winner, and he heralded the “largest real-dollar-spending cut in American history.”

The speaker’s pro-life allies, however, vented frustration with the decision to back off on the Planned Parenthood defunding effort against strong pressure from Planned Parenthood and its supporters on Capitol Hill.

The agreement forced the Democrats to accept a total of $38 billion in federal spending cuts this year. Republicans also won two other small but significant victories: a revived ban on federal funding of abortions in the District of Columbia and new federal funds for a District school voucher initiative discontinued soon after the 2008 election led to Democratic control of the House.

Key details of the plan have yet to be spelled out, and while Republicans joined forces to support Boehner, fissures were soon apparent in the GOP’s united front.

Over the weekend, Pence, a top pro-life congressman, defended Boehner on ABC’s This Week but stopped short of endorsing the deal. “I want to see the language in the bill. I think John Boehner has a good deal, but it’s probably not good enough for me to support it,” said Pence, the author of the amendment to defund Planned Parenthood. Pence was traveling and could not be reached for comment.

Disappointment With Boehner

The 11th-hour negotiations yielded new federal policy on abortion and vouchers for the District of Columbia. Mayor Vincent Gray attacked the move as an unwarranted intrusion of the federal government into the internal affairs of his city. Gray and several D.C. Council members were arrested for civil disobedience during a protest yesterday.

But the new federal policies were expected to win approval from the Archdiocese of Washington, though Church administrators were awaiting details of the voucher-funding plan for students seeking to attend private schools, including inner-city parochial schools. On March 30, Cardinal Donald Wuerl had endorsed a voucher plan Boehner had advocated.

Christa Lopiccolo, executive director of the Department of Life Issues at the Archdiocese of Washington, was more forthcoming about the reinstatement of the ban on federal funding of abortion in the District. She applauded the decision to ban federal funding of abortions in the city as the right response to “the highest abortion rates in the nation.”

“Women who are struggling with the difficulties of an unintended pregnancy do not need more abortions; they need compassionate care and more access to the services that make it possible for them to care for their children,” Lopiccolo said.

The Susan B. Anthony List, which helps to elect pro-life women to legislative positions and collaborated on the campaign to defund Planned Parenthood, greeted the budget deal with dismay. “The negotiations last week were all about spending and budget cuts. We lost the fight to defund Planned Parenthood before we even knew it,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the SBA List.

“The battle was really over when the speaker stopped pushing for this and undermined his own political leverage by publicly stating that he would not shut down the government over this issue,” she charged.

Planned Parenthood in Spotlight

Dannenfelser described the tactical retreat of House pro-lifers, including the speaker, as a “bitter disappointment.” But some of her political allies suggested the pro-life movement has reason to be proud of its incremental victories over the last couple of months.

“The cutoff of federally funded abortion in D.C. will save lives — over 1,000 abortions a year will be prevented by the policy won by Speaker Boehner,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee.

Johnson noted that the political campaign against Planned Parenthood educated the public about the organization’s primary emphasis on abortion, rather than other health services for women — as its recent media campaign had asserted.

“More than ever before, Planned Parenthood is in the spotlight for its role in funding abortion, the way they deal with minors, and other allegations raised against them,” Johnson said. “One-half of the legislative branch has voted to cut off the organization from all funding sources. Planned Parenthood is on the defensive.”

That said, Johnson acknowledged that Planned Parenthood still possesses “formidable resources, including a president who is willing to do anything needed to support the organization.”

Indeed, while the Democratic leadership, and much of the media, presented the last week of the budget fight as evidence of the GOP’s willingness to go to extremes to block abortion funding — and thus delay a resolution to the budget crisis — Republicans and their allies suggested that the opposite scenario was closer to the truth.

“What was clear,” said Pence on ABC, “is that this administration and liberals in Congress were willing to shut the government down to continue to fund abortion providers in this country. That’s the bottom line.”

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, leader of the Republican Study Committee that shepherded the Pence Amendment through the House and helped to put federally funded abortions in the District in play, established a connection between his party’s fiscal and social policy.

During a telephone conference with reporters, Jordan outlined his plan to “achieve real savings for the taxpayers and not have our tax dollars go toward abortions.”

Going on the Record

The Pence Amendment (H.R. 1, Section 4013), a measure designed to stop all federal funds going into the coffers of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and its 102 affiliates, was introduced on the House floor in early February. While the Hyde Amendment bans the use of federal funds to pay for abortions,  pro-life activists have long contended that federal dollars designated for the group’s family-planning services are fungible, and simply free up other sources of revenue to be used for abortions.

The Susan B. Anthony List and its newly elected congressional allies in the House applauded the measure, and Planned Parenthood moved into the crosshairs of the pro-life Republican majority in the House. A series of embarrassing sting videos made public on YouTube, which reportedly documented Planned Parenthood employees ignoring evidence of sex-trafficking and statutory rape, were produced by Lila Rose of Live Action and turned up the political heat.

“[W]e will not back down from stopping taxpayer funding for an organization that is directly responsible for the abortion of hundreds of thousands of unborn babies each year. If you are going to kill the unborn, you’re not getting taxpayer funding,” vowed Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., at a February press conference designed to kick-start the effort to shut down the organization’s access to federal funds.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops signaled its support for the campaign against Planned Parenthood.

“I strongly support provisions that retain all appropriations riders against abortion funding and that restore a consistent ban on such funding in the budget of the District of Columbia,” wrote Stockton Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, in a March 4 letter to U.S. senators that outlined the conference’s budget priorities. “I hope funds now provided to organizations that perform abortions, and to programs that promote contraceptives to unmarried minors, will be redirected to meeting the basic needs of the poor.”

Planned Parenthood quickly moved to shore up its credibility, mounting a media campaign that highlighted a wide array of basic health services for women and downplayed abortion services. Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, portrayed the attack on her organization as a move that “hurts women, does not cut the deficit or fix the economy, and must be stopped.”

Democratic women in the Senate rose to Planned Parenthood’s defense: “This is an opportunity for the right wing in the House to really sock it to women,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

When Speaker Boehner and President Obama entered the final countdown before the government shutdown, pro-life GOP stalwarts sought to keep the Pence Amendment on the table. But the president repeatedly made it clear that there was “zero” chance the White House would agree to any ban on federal funding for the group. 

The budget agreement requires the Senate to conduct a formal vote on defunding Planned Parenthood and Obamacare. And pro-life activists expect to use those votes to target vulnerable Democrats in the 2012 election — just as Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.,  was defeated in 2004, in part, because his constituents were confronted with the South Dakota lawmaker’s voting record on abortion.

Douglas Johnson suggested that the pro-life movement should focus now on retaking the Senate and the White House.

“Boehner got the best deal possible,” he insisted. “We can’t be successful in defunding Planned Parenthood unless we have a pro-life majority in the Senate and a president willing to sign the bill. The House could not have pushed harder. It was the last issue [on the table], and the president would not budge an inch.”

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