Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) has thus far refused to make social issues central in his agenda, focusing instead on spending and the debt. But the House today will briefly wade into the social wars of the 1990s, bringing up a controversial anti-abortion bill.
The measure, which is expected to pass, would prohibit federal funding for abortions and create new controls on private companies that offer insurance plans that cover abortions.
The decision to put the measure on the floor is giving new hope to some social conservatives who want their issues swept up into the debt limit debate.
Rep. Trent Franks, an anti-abortion advocate, said that House Republicans “have some leverage” to get the Democratically controlled Senate to take up the legislation, similar to the way House Republicans forced an amendment onto the continuing resolution that would defund federal funding for Planned Parenthood. As part of a larger agreement on the final CR, Senate leaders agreed to hold a separate vote on the Planned Parenthood amendment.
On April 13, the Senate voted down the measure 42-58 with Republican Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Susan Collins (Maine) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) joining Democrats to oppose the bill. While conservatives were unsuccessful in getting the measure included in the final package, House Republicans said the forced vote was still a victory.
While Franks, a two-term lawmaker from Arizona, acknowledged that a balanced budget amendment may be better suited to be part of a compromise debt limit vote, he still has hope for a Senate vote on an anti-abortion bill.
Franks isn’t alone in hoping that H.R. 3 is part of the discussion on the debt ceiling extension.
“What we use the debt limit to leverage is really up to the leaders, [but] I would think this would be one of the bills that we could be asking for,” said Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), an ardent anti-abortion supporter.
Although conservative organizations have not yet begun pushing for this as part of the debt limit debate, activists said they would support the effort and argued that Republicans should make it a matter of routine that deals include requirements that the Senate vote on social issues. “Republicans making such demands shouldn’t be out of the ordinary,” Family Research Council’s Tom McClusky said.
Not all conservative Republicans are expecting the anti-abortion bill sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) to become a major factor in debt limit negotiations.
Rep. John Shimkus said he thought offsets for raising the debt limit needed to be very fiscally focused.
“Whether we muddy the water by putting social issues in is not even, of course the vast majority of our members are social conservatives, but not all of them. I don’t see it, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” the Illinois Republican said.
Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan also said the issue hadn’t come up as a formal proposal.
“Haven’t thought of it,” the Ohio lawmaker said. “We’re focused on spending, not that this isn’t spending as well.”
While social conservatives have highlighted the anti-abortion measure as being tied to federal funding, the Congressional Budget Office reported on March 15 that the bill has “negligible effects on tax revenues,” which has led such groups as Americans for Tax Reform to stay out of the debate.
In March, the group sent a letter to members of the Ways and Means Committee saying it would take no position on the bill.
But the Family Research Council has made the Smith bill a priority, particularly since it is unlikely Boehner will bring up any more stand-alone social bills this year.
Boehner has long been wary of social issues derailing his economic and spending agenda, and leadership aides acknowledged the focus would remain on those issues — and not the social side of the ledger.
For instance, while Boehner called the anti-abortion bill “one of our highest legislative priorities,” he hasn’t brought up other social issues measures. Even the House Republican blueprint for winning the majority in November contained few social issues, reaffirming GOP support for “traditional marriage” but did not take up controversial gay rights issues or mention same-sex marriage.
“We’re focused on getting our economy moving again and creating jobs, but we can also address the American people’s other priorities, including not using taxpayer funds to end innocent human life,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement.
But Democrats brushed those claims aside, arguing that Boehner is bowing to the far right of his party.
“Here we have the budget, the deficit, and what are we debating today? Repeal of some health care provision. It’s wasting time,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said. Nadler accused Republicans of attempting to “radically” expand current federal abortion restrictions with the Smith bill and charged it demonstrates the philosophical hypocrisy within the GOP. “They’re all for freedom, except when you do what they don’t want you to do. … Don’t push your religion on me.”
Rep. Diana DeGette, co-chairman of the Pro-Choice Caucus, agreed with Nadler, arguing that Boehner is using the vote to cater to conservatives even though he knows the Senate will never take up the bill. “It’s frustrating,” the Colorado Democrat acknowledged, adding, “It’s a distraction from the economy, job creation and things like that.”
DeGette, who has been whipping the vote on the abortion bill, said she believes Republicans have overstepped this time and that many Democrats who normally back anti-abortion bills will oppose the Smith measure. “You’ll see a lot of self described pro-life Democrats vote against this,” DeGette said.
She also warned that tying abortion to the debt limit would be a mistake. Arguing the bill would strip individuals’ tax cuts if they purchase insurance that covers abortion, DeGette said bluntly, “If they try to tie the debt limit to raising peoples’ taxes if they don’t buy the right insurance policies, I think that would be insane. I really do.”