The federal government is now two weeks away from experiencing the second government shutdown in two years if it does not pass a continuing resolution (CR) by October 1.
In 2013, the cause of the government shutdown was a tussle between the Republican-led House and the Democrat-controlled Senate over funding for the Affordable Care Act.
This time, the debate is between Republicans in the House over whether to deprive Planned Parenthood of $500 million in federal funds.
President Obama has said he will veto a spending bill that defunds Planned Parenthood, and the Republican leadership in the Senate has expressed that it does not want to risk another government shutdown over the issue. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) have both stated that they will not insist on passing a spending bill that defunds the organization.
In the House, however, a growing number of conservatives are taking a stand after the release this summer of a video from 2014 showing a representative from Planned Parenthood negotiating fees for fetal tissue with undercover members of a pro-life organization known as the Center for Medical Progress.
Leading the effort to defund Planned Parenthood is the newly formed House Freedom Caucus (HFC). Founded by nine conservative Republicans in January 2015, the membership-by-invitation-only group has grown in both size and influence since its inception and currently has, according to Roll Call, at least 42 members.
When HFC chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) learned about the video, he decided the group needed to take a stand.
“Personally, there’s no way I’m going to vote for something that gives money to this organization in light of what we discovered,” he previously remarked.
Some members of Congress question whether Planned Parenthood violated the law, which forbids profiting from transactions involving fetal tissue.
“I don’t know if it was illegal…but it was immoral, what was seen on that video,” HFC member Raul Labrador said.
A law from 1993 permits women to donate fetal tissue, with several stipulations, for use in medical research. Researchers can then acquire that tissue by paying fees to groups like Planned Parenthood to cover the costs of preservation and transportation.
Researchers have experimented on fetal tissue to develop medical treatments: it was used to help find a cure to polio and is currently being studied to better understand diseases such as AIDS, muscular dystrophy, and Parkinson’s disease, according to PolitiFact.
Thus far, federal and state-level investigations have yet to reveal that Planned Parenthood has violated any laws regarding the acquisition or distribution of fetal tissue.
Nevertheless, some HFC members question whether the federal government should subsidize Planned Parenthood, which provides a variety of services – including abortion – at all.
“The issue is not whether there’s been a crime committed or not,” U.S. Rep.Ted Poe (R-Texas) said, according to The Hill. “This issue is whether or not taxpayers should fund Planned Parenthood.”
Some House members have signed onto a pledge circulated by HFC member Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) stating their commitment not to vote for a bill funding the organization.
Mathematically, the HFC has the power to put Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in a bind. If the HFC gathers enough support in the House, it can prevent the chamber from passing a CR that funds Planned Parenthood in a straight party-line vote and would thus force Boehner to seek support from Democrats. However, cooperating with Democrats could jeopardize Boehner’s position as speaker.
Earlier this summer, U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) introduced a “motion to vacate the chair” – to depose Boehner, and a vote to replace him could be held within 48 hours if a member of the House introduces a “privileged resolution.”
Joel Gehrke of National Review Online summarized Boehner’s predicament this way:
HFC has enough members to deny House Speaker John Boehner…the 218 Republican votes needed to pass a funding bill. If Boehner acquiesces to the HFC’s demand, and congressional Republicans pass a government funding bill that withholds tax dollars from Planned Parenthood, President Obama will veto the legislation, which could trigger a shutdown. And if he asks House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi…to provide the remaining necessary votes, it might fan conservative anger and kick off another attempt to depose him as speaker.
The goal is not to replace Boehner, according to Meadows, but rather to amplify the voice and demonstrate the power of the conservative wing of the party that feels increasingly dissatisfied with Boehner’s leadership.
“For me it’s more about changing the way that we do business as opposed to changing the actual person,” Meadows has said.
The HFC has already used its growing leverage to affect the way the House does business. On September 9, conservatives in the House forced the leadership to delay a procedural vote regarding debate over the Iran nuclear deal, citing a lack of information due to the secrecy surrounding undisclosed side agreements.
The standoff between the HFC and the Republican leadership in the House could end with one of three outcomes: (1) the HFC backing down and passing a “clean CR” that maintains funding for Planned Parenthood; (2) the HFC leading a coup to oust Boehner; or (3) Boehner siding with the HFC, the House voting to defund Planned Parenthood, and a legislative stalemate that ends in a government shutdown.
How or whether the House GOP resolves this internal feud by October 1 could determine if the federal government experiences a repeat of 2013.