Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman who chairs the Democratic National Committee, sent out a fundraising email about how mad she is that Republicans want to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood. She says they “are just fine with shutting down the government – again.”
Cynics may suspect that Wasserman Schultz would in truth be delighted if the government were to shut down over this issue. In any case, the Republican leadership in both houses of Congress isn’t “just fine” with a shutdown. It is desperate to avoid one – maybe too desperate.
As the Republican Party has become more uniformly anti-abortion, it has also become more hostile to Planned Parenthood, which performs more abortions than any other organization. This summer, outrage at the group has surged because of a series of undercover videos produced by an anti-abortion group. Those videos suggested that Planned Parenthood employees have, among other things, trafficked in the organs of aborted fetuses for profit, altered abortion methods to acquire usable organs and killed infants for the same purpose.
Planned Parenthood and its defenders say that the videos are not to be trusted because an anti-abortion group made them, and that they were edited and manipulated. (When not denying the truth of the videos, the defenders have asked what the big deal is since it’s only fetuses being carved up.) The group hired a liberal opposition-research company to produce a report about the videos. The report was negative.
The firm conceded that it couldn’t find “widespread evidence of substantive video manipulation.” It pointed out, though, that the videos included “cuts” and “skips,” as well as “ominous music.” In other words, they were videos.
While most Republicans agree that Planned Parenthood shouldn’t get federal funds, they’re divided on tactics. The party’s congressional leaders want to avoid raising the issue in a pending bill that would keep the government funded. They’re certain that Democrats would block that bill if it cut off money for the group. A standoff could result in a government shutdown, and these Republicans fear their party would get the blame.
A shutdown would allow Planned Parenthood to change the subject from its conduct to Republican extremism, closed national parks and so on. So Republicans would harm themselves and, after the government reopened, the group would keep getting as much federal money as ever.
Other Republicans think that tying the Planned Parenthood fight to the funding bill is simply the right thing to do. They also think that doing so would give their case against the group more publicity and thus drive down support for it and for abortion more generally. While some on the pro-abortion rights side have said that they found the videos disturbing – even Hillary Clinton said so before getting back on message – a lot of people haven’t heard much about them. These Republicans also tend to worry less about a shutdown, noting that their party triumphed in the 2014 elections, held a year after the last one.
My own view is that the Republican leaders are right to want to avoid a shutdown. But they should nonetheless offer a spending bill that denies any federal funds to Planned Parenthood. Senate Democrats could filibuster it if they wanted to – and Republicans could see how the debate goes. They could then give way, temporarily, if that’s what it takes to keep the government funded. But they shouldn’t give in preemptively.
I can see why the Republican leadership resists this course. Their conservative critics, they figure, will attack them if they raise the possibility of defunding Planned Parenthood and then fold. But they'll probably get more criticism if they fail to raise the issue in the first place. And if Republicans vote on a spending bill that denies federal funds to the organization, they'll be able to make the case on the floor against its mistreatment of human life. It’s a case that deserves to prevail, and cries out to be made.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.