The last time Republicans shut down the federal government, they were furious that uninsured Americans were being offered access to affordable, comprehensive health insurance. Now, just two years later, there are rumblings about another shutdown, and this time the impetus is even more baffling: Far-right lawmakers in Congress want to stop federal funds from going to Planned Parenthood, where the money is used to subsidize contraception and other reproductive health care needs.
Congress members say they’re reacting to unproven allegations against Planned Parenthood that came to light in a series of “sting” videos released by an anti-abortion action group – among them, the claim that Planned Parenthood has been profiting from fetal tissue donation. In fact, House Republicans have tried for years to defund the reproductive health care provider, and have failed to do so session after session. This time, in order to strong-arm their fellow politicians into agreeing to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, some Congress members are once more gambling with the lives of seniors, veterans and low-income families that rely on TANF and other federal benefits to meet their needs.
We’ve seen this process play out before. In October of 2013 the GOP, led by its Tea Party wing, rode a government shutdown for over two weeks, playing chicken by refusing to raise the debt ceiling and defaulting on government loans. The country lost about $24 billion in economic growth in the process, and Tea Party popularity fell to a new low. But voter memories are short. A year later, when midterm elections rolled around, the shutdown and its effects were all but forgotten, and the Republican Party not only held onto the House, but won a majority in the Senate, too.
Among the things people have forgotten about the 2013 shutdown was the massive gift it was to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. In just those few weeks, Cruz managed to gather millions of email addresses and nearly $800,000 in donations from Americans who opposed the Affordable Care Act and supported his efforts to keep the government closed.
It’s no wonder that now, with his presidential campaign in full swing, Cruz is one of the most vocal advocates for shutting down the government again if any federal funding for Planned Parenthood is included in the new budget. Last month, Cruz reached out to tens of thousands of religious leaders to discuss his “ambitious 50-state campaign to end taxpayer support for Planned Parenthood,” as the Washington Post described it – a campaign that looks to be just as invested in prepping for local primary wins as it is in ending funding for the nation’s largest reproductive health care provider.
Cruz isn’t alone, by any means. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, another Republican presidential contender, is also vocally pushing the defunding bandwagon, though he stops short of wanting to shut down the government over it. Paul recently headlined a rally organized by the anti-abortion group Students for Life America in response to undercover recordings targeting Planned Parenthood. At the rally, he advocated for a separate stand-alone defunding bill, predicting Senate supporters wouldn’t have the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
“They do not have 60 votes to fund Planned Parenthood as long as we separate the bills,” he said, according to LifesiteNews.com. “I think the country is coming in our direction. What we need is leadership in Washington. And we should demand nothing less than a separate vote.”
Still, Paul wasn’t entirely willing to take a shutdown off the table in order to get Planned Parenthood funding out of the spending bill. “We should hold our ground,” Paul said, according to The Hill. “If the Democrats want to shut down government over this, then it goes to Democrats.”
For at least three dozen Congress members a shutdown is worth any potential blowback that the GOP could face in the next election, and they have vowed not to vote for any budget that includes Planned Parenthood funding. Other leaders on the right are more pragmatic about the political fallout, both for the party and the anti-abortion movement itself. Politico reports that Speaker of the House John Boehner warned his allies that a shutdown would be more likely to hurt them than to help them, and “could damage the cause of lawmakers who oppose abortion.”
Cooler heads like Boehner appear to be prevailing. This week Congress is expected to vote on two new bills targeting Planned Parenthood – one that will deny Planned Parenthood funding for one year, and another that would increase penalties if doctors are found to be violating the Born Alive Infants Protection Act. (Anti-abortion activists claim that abortion providers violated the legislation in the “sting” videos they recorded.) As if that weren’t enough of a gift to abortion opponents, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced he may also bring up for a vote a federal ban on abortion after 20 weeks – a full ban on abortions just a few weeks prior to viability and with almost no exceptions, which abortion opponents believe could finally give them the challenge to Roe v. Wade they’ve been waiting for.
It is unclear if any bill – the year-long moratorium on funding, the strengthening of the Born Alive Infants Protection Act or the 20-week abortion ban – would get the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. And all three are likely to get vetoed by President Obama if they do somehow make it to his desk. But GOP leaders appear hopeful that although the bills may never be put into effect, they could be enough to appease those clamoring for a government shutdown. Whether this strategy works may depend on how badly Cruz and Paul want to win the GOP endorsement, and how far their allies are willing to go in their quest to bring Planned Parenthood down.