Senate Says No to Planned Parenthood After Pence Breaks Tie

The defection of two Republican senators forced Vice President Mike Pence to break two tie votes as the Senate passed a resolution that would free states to withhold federal family planning money from Planned Parenthood.

Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine broke from the party line, compelling Pence to cast deciding votes on reversing an Obama administration regulation.

Under the Constitution, the vice president doubles as the president of the Senate and has the power to break ties. In this case, he’s also the administration’s anti-abortion spokesman. “We will not rest, until we restore a culture of life in America for ourselves and our posterity,” Pence said in his January speech to the March for Life in Washington.

Collins has voted against many abortion restrictions while Murkowski’s record on the issue is mixed. She has voted to bar direct funding of abortions, and has opposed legislation to withhold grants from organizations such as Planned Parenthood.

“Family planning funds are the best way to reduce the number of abortions," Collins said in an interview. “You already can’t use federal funds for abortion” so “we shouldn’t be restricting these family planning funds,” she said.

The next battle may be over an effort by her fellow Republicans to disqualify Planned Parenthood from being reimbursed by Medicaid to treat low-income women.

“That’s going to be coming and that is so unfair because that’s treating them differently from every other Medicaid provider,” she said. It also runs afoul of her party’s philosophy, she said. “That’s saying that women, in particular, cannot choose their own health-care provider and it’s very Republican to say that you ought to be able to make your own choice of provider," Collins said.

Earlier this year, Murkowski said in a speech to the Alaska Legislature that she “will not vote to deny Alaskans access to the health services that Planned Parenthood provides.”

More to Follow

The procedural vote and the roll call that’s expected later in the day are part of a larger effort to cut off all federal funds from health-care organizations that perform abortions. That fight is likely to intensify next month as Congress considers legislation to avoid a government shutdown after April 28, the last day of full federal funding under Public Law 114-254.

Senate Republicans “didn’t listen to women across the country who made it clear that restricting women’s access to the full range of reproductive care is unacceptable,” said Washington Democrat Patty Murray. Republicans “are already gearing up to attach riders to budget bills in order to cut off critical services at Planned Parenthood to millions of patients,” she said on the Senate floor.

Senate leaders held the procedural vote open for more than an hour to enable Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson, recovering from two back surgeries, to come to the floor in a wheelchair to cast the 50th vote. That advanced the House-passed resolution, H.J. Res. 43, and put the measure in position for final action, which also required a Pence tie-breaker.

If cleared by Congress and signed into law, it would overturn an Obama administration regulation that prohibits states from refusing to distribute federal family-planning money to clinics simply because the facilities also perform abortions.

How Much at Stake

Planned Parenthood clinics received $20.5 million of the $252.6 million distributed under the Title X Family Planning grant program in the 2014 fiscal year, according to Health and Human Services Department figures.

The money goes to county public health departments and local organizations under the so-called Title X Family Planning Program. It supports counseling for contraception, prenatal care and other health services for low-income women. The money cannot be used to provide abortions.

The Department of Health and Human Services said in its Dec. 19 announcement of the final rule that 13 states have restricted or eliminated the award of federal family-planning grants to organizations based on criteria unrelated to the groups’ ability to provide family planning services.

The restrictions sharply curtailed services to low-income women, HHS said. After Texas cut its contribution and revamped the way it distributed the federal money, the number of patients served by the program declined to less than 167,000 in 2015 from almost 260,000 in 2011, according to HHS.

In a floor speech, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the new regulation “an unnecessary restriction on states that know their residents’ own needs best."

The regulation that took effect two days before President Donald Trump took office is being challenged under the Congressional Review Act, Public Law 104-121, which sets up a speedy process for overturning new regulations.

Undercover Video

Republicans accelerated their efforts in 2015 to restrict government funding of Planned Parenthood after an anti-abortion group secretly videotaped Planned Parenthood’s medical director discussing reimbursement for tissue and organs harvested from aborted fetuses. The videotape was made by an activist who posed as a medical researcher seeking to purchase the tissues.

It’s illegal to sell human tissue for a profit. The tapes documented discussions of reimbursement to cover Planned Parenthood’s costs, which is legal.

But they created a political firestorm and prompted House Republicans to convene a special committee to investigate the use of fetal tissue for medical research. Democrats called it a witch hunt and the final report, signed only by Republicans, criticized Planned Parenthood procedures without providing evidence of any legal violations.

Earlier this week, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra charged two activists who made the videos with 15 felony counts. The complaint alleges they invaded the privacy of medical providers whose conversations were secretly recorded. Charges in Texas against the same activists were later dropped.

(Note: Bloomberg Philanthropies provides financial support for Planned Parenthood.)

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.