The Next Republican Reckoning

The debate over whether to use reconciliation to defund Planned Parenthood will force the GOP to decide what issue it cares about most.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 28: Anti-abortion activists hold a rally opposing federal funding for Planned Parenthood in front of the U.S. Capitol July 28, 2015 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Daniel Newhauser and Sarah Mimms
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Daniel Newhauser and Sarah Mimms
Sept. 20, 2015, 8 p.m.

For Re­pub­lic­ans this month, one ques­tion has been un­avoid­able: What do we stand for?

The GOP’s fight to strip Planned Par­ent­hood of fed­er­al fund­ing has again brought to the fore the de­bate in the party about what is­sues should get first billing—those deal­ing with the eco­nomy and jobs, or those high­light­ing so­cial is­sues.

That ques­tion has emerged in its clearest form as lead­ers in both cham­bers now con­sider de­ploy­ing a little-used budget­ary tac­tic—re­con­cili­ation—that would al­low Re­pub­lic­ans to sidestep a Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic fili­buster and muscle a bill to Pres­id­ent Obama’s desk. If Re­pub­lic­ans have one chance to make a re­sound­ing state­ment about their pri­or­it­ies, what should it be?

The re­con­cili­ation pro­cess would al­low Re­pub­lic­ans, for likely the only time this year, to pass a purely con­ser­vat­ive bill through both cham­bers, a mis­sion state­ment of sorts for a ma­jor­ity that has struggled to define it­self amid con­ser­vat­ive in­fight­ing and tac­tic­al losses against in­tract­able Demo­crats in the Sen­ate.

Re­pub­lic­ans have tried hard to fo­cus their ma­jor­ity primar­ily on fisc­al or for­eign policy is­sues, while al­low­ing di­vis­ive so­cial is­sues their votes early but not of­ten. That strategy was upen­ded over the past few weeks as an­ti­abor­tion act­iv­ists pressed their lead­ers to pun­ish Planned Par­ent­hood after un­der­cov­er videos were re­leased show­ing rep­res­ent­at­ives from the group dis­cuss­ing the har­vest­ing of fetal tis­sue.

As a res­ult, con­ser­vat­ives such as Sen. Ted Cruz and the House Free­dom Caucus have been push­ing lead­er­ship to strip the group’s fund­ing in a must-pass con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion at the end of this month and dar­ing Obama to veto it.

To avoid a gov­ern­ment shut­down that tac­tic would al­most cer­tainly bring on, lead­ers have floated the idea of us­ing the re­con­cili­ation pro­cess to tar­get the group’s fed­er­al dol­lars in­stead. That has piqued the in­terest of some of the staunchest an­ti­abor­tion mem­bers.

“I be­lieve it’s the best strategy. … Why do we have fisc­al is­sues? Isn’t it to sus­tain life it­self?” Rep. Trent Franks said. “Re­cent rev­el­a­tions in these videos have called the en­tire coun­try to ask the ques­tion, ‘Who truly are we?’”

Lead­er­ship aides cau­tioned that no de­cision has been made as to how the new ma­jor­ity will use the re­con­cili­ation pro­cess and a fi­nal choice does not ap­pear to be im­min­ent. Still, the tac­tic could help to cor­ral votes from con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers both for the clean con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion lead­ers are now push­ing to avoid a fed­er­al shut­down in Oc­to­ber, and later this year, when Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell plans to bring ap­pro­pri­ations bills al­ter­ing se­quest­ra­tion spend­ing caps for both de­fense and nondefense to the floor.

Yet oth­ers, who had hoped to use the tac­tic to high­light fisc­al policy, dis­agree. Rep. Tom Mc­Clin­tock last week resigned from the House Free­dom Caucus over ob­jec­tions to their push for an abor­tion show­down in a spend­ing bill, and he said mak­ing a sim­il­ar state­ment through re­con­cili­ation would not be his pref­er­ence either.

“The re­con­cili­ation pro­cess was de­signed so that Con­gress can ef­fect­ively im­ple­ment its budget,” he said. “I be­lieve that re­con­cili­ation should be used for the sole pur­pose of bring­ing our spend­ing back on a course to­ward fisc­al solvency.”

Oth­er mem­bers have broached the idea of us­ing re­con­cili­ation to again try to re­peal Obama’s health care law. Mc­Con­nell has re­peatedly said that the Sen­ate would pur­sue that strategy, prom­ising Sen. Mike Lee in Ju­ly that the up­per cham­ber would use re­con­cili­ation to re­peal as much of the law as pos­sible. But Mc­Con­nell and oth­er Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers have left open the pos­sib­il­ity of coup­ling a re­peal and oth­er policy changes in­to the re­con­cili­ation pro­cess.

“We will fo­cus spe­cif­ic­ally on Obama­care, but oth­er areas may be in­cluded,” Sen. John Bar­rasso said earli­er this sum­mer.

A re­peal of the Af­ford­able Care Act would cer­tainly draw a veto from the pres­id­ent, show­ing the elect­or­ate a dis­tinc­tion between the two parties. But Franks said it’s a dis­tinc­tion that has already been well-defined, so Re­pub­lic­ans should move on.

“Let’s say we get an­oth­er vote on Obama­care and we get it to the pres­id­ent’s desk. He ve­toes it right?” Franks said.  “That shows he’s for Obama­care right? And we voted to re­peal it. That shows we’re against it. Is that news to the Amer­ic­an people?”

Still oth­ers, though a smal­ler minor­ity of mem­bers, have in­tim­ated that tax re­form would be the best is­sue to place on the pres­id­ent’s desk, at least in part be­cause he might sign such a bill. But Rep. Tom Reed, a mem­ber of the Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, said that any ele­ments of tax re­form that Obama sup­ports would likely also have enough Demo­crat­ic sup­port to pass through the Sen­ate any­way, mak­ing re­con­cili­ation less valu­able.

He said that be­fore the un­der­cov­er videos from Planned Par­ent­hood were re­leased he may have thought dif­fer­ently, but now the dy­nam­ic has changed.

“If I had my pref­er­ence, I would fo­cus on the fisc­al is­sues,” he said. “But now you’re deal­ing with the real­ity of the situ­ation at hand, and this is­sue is a very ser­i­ous is­sue. … It does war­rant po­ten­tially in­clu­sion in the re­con­cili­ation pack­age so that the pres­id­ent has to go on re­cord de­fend­ing the sale of baby parts.”

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