With the end of the fiscal year, September is almost always a busy month on Capitol Hill. But this year, a funding fight over Planned Parenthood is shaping up to be emblematic of John A. Boehner's entire speakership: a subtle and chaotic effort to lead a divided Republican Conference while avoiding the most damaging public relations pitfalls.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already said Republicans don't have the votes to defund Planned Parenthood. But House conservatives — mobilized by the release of a series of undercover videos featuring officials talking about abortion procedures — seem undeterred. "Personally, there's no way I'm going to vote for something that gives money to this organization in light of what we discovered," House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, recently told CQ Roll Call.
If the influential Jordan votes against a continuing resolution with Planned Parenthood funding, he's likely to be joined by others in the 40-plus-member HFC.
"Values voters will be outraged if a Republican House and Senate, who campaigned on a pro-life majority and [said] we're going to make a difference on life issues, don't do something about it in September," conservative Kansas Republican Tim Huelskamp told CQ Roll Call.
Huelskamp was one of 18 House Republicans in July who pledged to vote against any bill that gives even a single dollar to Planned Parenthood.
If those members maintain that pledge, passing a continuing resolution becomes even more difficult. Boehner and McConnell each would almost certainly need Democratic votes.
Ultimate passage of a CR, even a short-term bill to facilitate a larger budget caps discussion that could include the debt limit and even highway funding, was probably always going to take Democratic votes. There simply aren't enough Republicans in the Senate to avoid a Democratic filibuster. But there are small Republican victories that could be had in the CR.
For one, if Republicans wanted to avoid wrapping the debt ceiling and highway funding into the CR negotiations, leadership would simply make sure that the term of a stopgap spending measure doesn't align with the end of October.
Boehner could also put up a CR that defunds Planned Parenthood and send it to the Senate, putting the pressure on McConnell, who would likely send a so-called clean bill back to the House. At that point, Boehner could put it up for a vote and "let the House work its will," as the Ohio Republican likes to say.
Another alternative is turning to Democratic votes from the get-go. Boehner could end the Planned Parenthood chatter by stating that Republicans won't put defunding language in the CR — a route that could be politically risky for the speaker.
Hanging over Boehner's head is a resolution to remove his gavel. North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows told CQ Roll Call last week he could upgrade his motion to vacate the chair from a non-privileged resolution to a privileged one at any moment, forcing a vote on the measure.
It seems like Meadows is just looking for the right time.
“I think all of September is a huge pressure point, and can be a real time that people start looking at changes in leadership,” Meadows said.
For one, Meadows mentioned, there is the Iran nuclear deal vote , which the House is scheduled to take up Wednesday and vote on by Friday. Meadows said many Republicans are questioning the strategy which allowed President Barack Obama to affirm his nuclear deal without a majority in Congress. And of course there is the CR, where Meadows saw a number of potential ways for Boehner to lose members.
So how will the CR and Planned Parenthood actually play out?
Neil Bradley, now the chief strategy officer of the Conservative Reform Network but formerly the deputy chief of staff for Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Eric Cantor, has penned an open letter to "Washington policymakers and interested parties " that advises Republicans to not make war over Planned Parenthood and to accept a messaging vote.
"Regardless of the merits, which are strong, of transferring funding from Planned Parenthood to community health centers, there is no doubt, given the current president and the lack of 60 votes in the Senate, that insisting on including that proposal as part of a CR will result in another government shutdown," Bradley writes in a letter that will go out later Tuesday, an advance copy of which CQ Roll Call obtained.
Instead of trying to defund Planned Parenthood in a CR, Bradley, who is still one of the most respected policy minds in GOP circles on Capitol Hill, suggests a "stand-alone vote," much like the one the Senate already took. Such a vote would allow members to go on-the-record, but it would do little else.
Ultimately, the GOP's track on Planned Parenthood could depend on how much pressure Boehner is feeling from the right. He may not want the fight, but if his gavel is on the line, that could change. As Boehner likes to say, a leader without followers is just someone taking a walk.
Ryan McCrimmon contributed to this report.
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