Politico: Abortion foes gird for next round

This article first appeared online at Politico on April 9, 2011.

Abortion foes gird for next round
By Carrie Budoff Brown

Social conservatives lost Round One against Planned Parenthood, but they got a taste of what’s possible and vowed Saturday to return for more.

“We’re not finished with this,” Penny Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for America, said in an interview. “The fiscal year 2012 budget is just around the corner. We are going to continue to work to defund Planned Parenthood.”

That fight could make this one look quaint by comparison. Republicans have staked out the battle over Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s dramatic budget proposal – with $6.2 trillion in cuts and a remaking of Medicaid and Medicare – as a defining ideological moment for the party.

But if House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had hoped to keep his party tightly focused on jobs and the economy, social conservatives – emboldened by their ability to push government shutdown negotiations to the brink – have a different goal in mind.

And Democrats couldn’t be happier about it.

Several Democratic insiders said they believed the tide turned in their favor once the debate shifted from a larger fight over government spending to a more narrow focus on eliminating funding for women’s health services, including for groups like Planned Parenthood, long a target for conservatives.

If the next round of spending talks is overshadowed by social issues, Democrats believe they have a tested roadmap for gaining the upper hand politically.

“They lose this fight if people think this is about Planned Parenthood. It turns them into the rank social ideologues nobody wants when they’re unemployed,” an aide to a moderate Democrat senator up for reelection in 2012, said before the deal was struck. “Earlier this week, they had us in a bit of a box, but I think we’ve . turned it around” quickly.

The budget deal, in the end, turned out to be a mixed bag for both sides.

Republicans backed down from the Planned Parenthood cuts, a move that Nance said left her “bitterly disappointed.” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, said she, too, was disappointed, but that abortion opponents “will not rest until Planned Parenthood is defunded.”

“The most disappointing part of the whole battle is that Speaker Boehner basically gave over to the president’s talking points on shutting down the government over Planned Parenthood funding,” Dannenfelser said. “It would have been a very easy message to communicate that the president had such a diehard attachment to Planned Parenthood . that he would be the one making the decision to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood.”

Boehner lost bargaining power as far back as February, when he signaled during an interview with CBN’s David Brody that he wouldn’t use Planned Parenthood to force a shutdown, Dannenfelser said.

“He gave over his leverage a long time ago,” she said.

Abortion-rights advocates won on Planned Parenthood, but they lost on another front. Democrats agreed to reinstate a ban on the D.C. government from using local funds on abortion services.

“It’s clear that the fight for women’s health will continue, and we will continue to work on behalf of the millions of American women who count on this critical care,” said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Nance said the D.C. abortion ban was important, but “low-hanging fruit.” 

Brendan Buck, a Boehner spokesman, declined to say Saturday whether the speaker would use the upcoming 2012 budget debate – or a must-have vote to raise the debt limit – to renew the fight against Planned Parenthood. Buck would say only that Boehner wants the House to “work its will.”

Few questioned Boehner’s private commitment to abortion opponents over the past week. But in his public statements, he talked only about the spending issues – a disconnect that highlighted how much the GOP leadership wanted to avoid elevating social issues, much to annoyance of abortion opponents.

At the White House late Thursday, with only 24 hours left until a government shutdown, Boehner kept insisting that any deal include a prohibition against federal funding for Planned Parenthood. But President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) repeatedly refused, saying there was no room for negotiation.

“The president and Sen. Reid were prepared to say, ‘we will – this bill will go down if you make this about social policy,’ ” said a senior Senate Democratic aide close to the negotiations. “That was the line in the sand.”

Yet in public, Boehner never made mention of abortion, at least not in the past week.

With Democrats blanketing the TV airwaves early Friday, accusing Republicans of wanting to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood, Boehner’s aide released a terse statement trying to set the record straight – and Boehner delivered the same message in person less than two hours later.

“There’s only one reason that we do not have an agreement as yet, and that issue is spending,” Boehner said. “We are close to a resolution on the policy issues. But I think the American people deserve to know: When will the White House and when will Senate Democrats get serious about cutting spending?”

On Saturday, Buck said the speaker was “focused on getting as many of the cuts and riders as possible, not putting one above any others.”

Democrats took Boehner’s statements as a sign that Republicans thought they were losing control of the debated.

“If abortion was really working for Republicans, then John Boehner wouldn’t be saying right now that this isn’t about abortion, it’s about spending,” said Jim Kessler, vice president of policy for Third Way, a centrist think tank. “If the issue worked well, they would be putting it out front.”

Another frustration for abortion opponents was a Friday press conference of House Republican women. It was called in response to House Democratic women blasting the GOP over the Planned Parenthood cuts, but the GOP women refused to talk about the policy riders.

“It does make you wonder why none of these true believers felt inclined to speak on the No. 1 pro-life issue we have been talking about,” Dannenfelser said.

But the mere fact that the negotiations went down to the wire over reproductive health underscored the enduring influence of social conservatives. For the second time in a year – first the health care law, now the budget – the fate of a major legislative battle hinged on abortion.

And that’s just what the Republican base had wanted.

For months, conservatives urged Republicans to use abortion as a tool to corner Obama. Citing polls that show more 70 percent of Americans oppose taxpayer-funded abortion, activists told lawmakers to make it the centerpiece of efforts to repeal the health care law and, then, to make deep spending cuts.

To them, federal funding for Planned Parenthood was exactly about spending.

Federal law already prohibits taxpayer funding of abortions. But conservatives maintain that the funding for women’s health care, a provision known as Title X that supports services such as cancer screenings and mammograms for low-income women, frees resources for Planned Parenthood to provide abortion services.

“Independents know the government is out of money and they don’t want taxpayer money to go for abortion,” Keith Appell, a conservative political strategist and senior vice president CRC Public Relations, wrote in an email Friday. “That’s a 70-30 issue, sorry Harry.”

Nance said the group’s immediate focus is on a vote this week in the Senate on Planned Parenthood funding, which was granted as part of the budget deal. The bill is unlikely to advance, but the vote will put senators on the record, which abortion opponents say they will use in the 2012 elections.

After that, she said, “we’re going to have to sit down and lick our wounds a little” before deciding how to proceed.

Alex Isenstadt, David Catanese and Meredith Shiner contributed to this story

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