WASHINGTON — A push by Republican congressional leaders to defund Planned Parenthood could threaten passage of their top-priority legislation to repeal Obamacare because of opposition to the anti-abortion provision by two key GOP senators.
House Speaker Paul Ryan announced Thursday that Republicans will move to strip all federal funding for Planned Parenthood as part of the process they are using early this year to dismantle Obamacare.
Congressional Republicans have tried for years to zero out all federal funding for Planned Parenthood because the group provides abortion services. The fight over Obamacare helped trigger a 16-day government shutdown in 2013, and Democrats and President Barack Obama insisted any Planned Parenthood provision targeting the group be removed from a bill to fund federal agencies.
The decision to add the controversial Planned Parenthood language, which is opposed by most Democrats, could have a major impact on getting the Affordable Care Act repeal legislation through the Senate because supporters need the backing of at least 50 of their 52 members and two pro-choice senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, won't commit to approving the bill with the Planned Parenthood provision in it.
Further complicating matters for Senate GOP leaders is Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, who announced this week he plans to vote against the Obamacare repeal legislation because the underlying budget measure it is attached to doesn't balance and adds to the deficit. If Murkowski, Collins and Paul all voted against the budget bill, it would be enough to torpedo the Obamacare repeal legislation.
"I'm going to wait and see what happens," Collins told reporters, indicating she thinks it's too early to decide how she will vote on the bill. "Obviously, I'm not happy to hear the speaker wants to include defunding of Planned Parenthood, an extremely controversial issue in the package."
Murkowski's told reporters Tuesday she was still weighing the issue. In 2015, she joined Collins in voting for an amendment to strip Planned Parenthood funding out of a budget bill that would have also repealed much of Obamacare. But Murkowski ultimately backed the repeal measure even though it had the anti-Planned Parenthood provision, which Obama ultimately vetoed.
"At this point and time, I have not been involved in a sit down with colleagues about specifics of reconciliation. So it's tough for me to speculate or engage in any conjecture," Murkowski said earlier this week. "We're going to be having a lot of discussions about that probably as soon as this week."
When asked her position Thursday, Murkowski's spokeswoman Karina Petersen said, the senator "is concerned about defunding Planned Parenthood as she is a longtime support of Planned Parenthood and has opposed broadly defunding the organization."
Republicans could drop the Planned Parenthood measure, but doing so could spark anger from the right-flank of their party and potentially make it harder to defund the organization at a later date.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in his chamber, said "that's certainly where I am" when asked if he wanted to include defunding of the organization into the repeal measure. But he noted "that's place we start" and that nothing has "finally been decided yet."
"While we would like to have all 52 senators, if we have a vice president in the chair, that gives us a little bit of flexibility on reconciliation," Cornyn said Thursday, referencing the ability of the vice president to break Senate ties.
The vast majority of federal money that Planned Parenthood does receive funds preventive health care, birth control, pregnancy tests, and other women's health care services. Democrats also point out that much of the money the group received is through the Medicaid program, which reimburses health care clinics that provide care to those covered by the federal program.
Under the long-standing "Hyde amendment" that is attached to annual funding bills, no federal money is allowed to go to programs that include abortion services, unless they are needed to preserve the life of the mother or are caused by rape.
Democrats immediately denounced the news that Republicans again were working to bar future federal funds for Planned Parenthood.
"This is a priority for the Republicans," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi Thursday afternoon. "So I just would like to speak individually to women across America: this is about respect for you, for your judgment about your personal decisions in terms of your reproductive needs, the size and timing of your family or the rest, not to be determined by the insurance company or by the Republican ideological right-wing caucus in the House of Representatives. So this is a very important occasion where we're pointing out very specifically what repeal of the (Affordable Care Act) will mean to woman."
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, told CNN's Erin Burnett on "OutFront" Thursday that "concerned" women have lobbied against the move throughout the day.
"His phone has been jammed up today," Richards said.
Anti-abortion rights groups point to a letter that the President-elect Donald Trump campaign signed in September pledging support for "Defunding Planned Parenthood as long as they continue to perform abortions, and re-allocating their funding to community health centers that provide comprehensive health care for women."
"Vulnerable pro-abortion Democratic senators need to do a serious gut check, especially following the 2016 election outcome, and decide if they will stand with their constituents and women's health care or continue to funnel money to big abortion," warned Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, in a written statement.