With only six legislative days left before the government runs out of money, House Republicans still don't have a conference-unifying strategy to avoid a shutdown and defund Planned Parenthood.
Asked whether he was worried about the rapidly closing window in which to act — current funding runs out on Sept. 30 — senior appropriator Tom Cole, R-Okla., laughed.
"Yeah!" the Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee chairman told a group of reporters Thursday morning. "I mean, sooner's better." Cole said he thought House Republicans would coalesce at the eleventh hour around a short-term continuing resolution to avoid a rerun of 2013, when the government shut down for more than two weeks over funding the Affordable Care Act.
Pelosi on GOP: 'Shutting Down Government is the Goal'
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., agreed everything would probably work out in the end. "I've been here long enough — it's amazing how much we can get done in a short amount of time when we have to," the 10-term lawmaker said.
Despite the congressman's optimism, the circumstances surrounding efforts to pass a government spending bill this year are particularly challenging.
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, is struggling to keep his hold on his members and stay on message amid talk of a possible coup as insurgent Republican members are determined to force their party to take a definitive stand on defunding Planned Parenthood. The women's health organization and abortion provider has become a conservative target after the release of videos showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing the harvesting of fetal tissues.
President Barack Obama has said he will never sign a bill that takes away money from Planned Parenthood, but that hasn't dissuaded some House and Senate conservatives.
Republicans will vote Friday on two standalone bills aimed at addressing the controversy: One would freeze Planned Parenthood funding for a year while Congress investigates the allegations and the other would require medical care for any fetus who survives an abortion procedure. Neither would be able to overcome a filibuster in the Senate as the rules currently stand, making Obama's veto threats irrelevant.
In order to force Obama to sign — or not — a bill defunding the organization, GOP lawmakers are weighing using the budget reconciliation process , which is not subject to the Senate filibuster. But that would be vetoed, too , and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., expressed confidence Thursday her members would help sustain that veto in the event Republicans attempted to override it.
An unspoken understanding is that these steps are being deployed to prepare members for the reality they will eventually have to vote for a "clean" continuing resolution, while also showing lawmakers that their concerns about Planned Parenthood are being taken seriously.
"You want to put them in a position that the conference realizes you've done everything you can possibly do," Cole, a close Boehner ally, explained.
Boehner stressed at his Thursday morning news conference there are "a lot of steps in this process," and plenty of tools in the arsenal to undermine Planned Parenthood's ability to function.
Still, for many House Republicans, Boehner hasn't really exhausted his options if he doesn't agree to move on a CR that contains defunding provisions. More than 50 members have pledged not to vote for any stopgap spending bill that lacks the key policy rider.
These lawmakers care little for arguments that the Republican Party will pay a political price if the fight on defunding Planned Parenthood leads to a lapse in funding for federal operations. Rep. John Fleming, R-La., is one of the lawmakers skeptical of the "avoid a shutdown at all costs" argument.
"Surprise," Fleming said sarcastically. "My answer to all this is, 'Hey, Republicans might get blamed. We get blamed for everything that goes on around here so that doesn’t affect me at all.' I can tell you our constituents, what they’re most unhappy about, are Republicans, in their perception, are unwilling to fight back against very liberal agendas coming out of Washington.
"At the end of the day how I vote ... is gonna be a matter of principle anyway, not a matter of polling," Fleming continued. "I think people think we do too much voting according to polls. What’s not important is, per se, where we stand in the majority, but what we’re getting done for the American people."
Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., had a similar take Thursday morning: "There's nobody in the conference that wants a shutdown. Nobody wants that. But I think we want to make sure the president ultimately has to either put up or shut up. I mean, he threatens vetoes all the time but nothing ever gets to his desk. Ever. So our leaders wave the white flag every time there's an opportunity."
It all leaves Boehner with a question of if, or when, to go ahead with a clean bill and rely on Democratic votes to make up for a shortfall of support on his side of the aisle. But he'll probably have to make a concession on something, namely the promise of negotiations to lift sequester levels for a longer-term spending bill needed to fund government operations for the remainder of fiscal 2016.
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