Legislation

Congress now turns to spending bill to keep government open, avoiding shutdown over Planned Parenthood

FILE: July 29, 2015: House members walk down the steps on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

FILE: July 29, 2015: House members walk down the steps on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.  (AP)

With the Iran nuclear deal debate essentially over, Congress now turns to several other pressing issues, particularly agreeing on a temporary spending bill to avoid a partial government shutdown on Oct. 1.

Leaders of the Republican-controlled Congress have vowed to avoid an unpopular government shutdown. But the party’s most conservative caucus could still create problems, especially if members attempt to link the spending bill to de-funding Planned Parenthood.

With Congress being officially in session just a handful of days before the potential shutdown deadline, GOP leaders haven't said how they will handle conservatives' demands while also rounding up enough votes to prevent a shutdown. 

Conservatives’ longstanding opposition to Planned Parenthood and abortion was re-ignited this summer by the release of secretly recorded videos showing group officials offhandedly discussing how they sometimes provide tissue from aborted fetuses for medical researchers.

So efforts to de-fund the group will likely help the Republicans Party secure votes from its base in the 2016 presidential election cycle. But more moderate and independent voters would likely blame Republicans for a shutdown, as they have in the past.

Such a bill probably would pass the GOP-run House. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., recently acknowledged that he lacks the votes in his chamber and said President Obama would veto it anyway.

The public mostly blamed Republicans in 2013 when a partial shutdown lasted 16 days after they tried dismantling Obama's health care law in exchange for keeping agencies open.

"Having charged up the hill once and been shot down, why would you want to do that again?" said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., an ally of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "I'm pretty convinced we're not going to shut down the government."

Planned Parenthood gets more than $500 million in federal and state funds annually, virtually none of which can be used for abortions, and says it's done nothing wrong.  

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., has collected 31 signatures from conservative lawmakers pledging to oppose any bill funding government if it includes money for Planned Parenthood.

And Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a presidential contender, is circulating a comparable letter. Many of the other GOP presidential contenders are also urging Congress to slash Planned Parenthood's funds.

But GOP aides say Cruz has won little support among Senate Republicans.  

Congressional leaders' immediate problem is Mulvaney. If his group of 31 holds and Boehner wants to pass a bill preventing a shutdown and funding Planned Parenthood, he'd need Democratic votes.

Boehner needed and got Democratic backing to end the 2013 shutdown and a brief closure this year of the Homeland Security Department in an immigration fight with Obama.

But no leader likes to rely on the other party to pass crucial legislation.

Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said the speaker "is focused on ensuring that our team is exposing Planned Parenthood's barbaric methods to the world, saving more babies" and that he "is not going anywhere."

It's unclear if an effort to remove Boehner would succeed, but it would be embarrassing.

Instead of a fall shutdown, GOP leaders will likely seek to temporarily finance government and perhaps set up a Christmas showdown over 2016 spending and Planned Parenthood.

Meanwhile, the House plans votes next week on bills by Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., halting Planned Parenthood's federal funds for a year and by Franks protecting infants born alive during abortions. Both would likely pass the House but face long Senate odds.

The Senate is expected to vote this month on a measure by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a presidential hopeful, barring most late-term abortions. It faces likely defeat.

A vote on another bill cutting off Planned Parenthood's money could come later this year.

Though Obama has enough votes to secure the Iran deal, some Republicans are vowing to continue to block the effort.

Other pending issues before Congress include how to avoid sequester, the automatic budget cuts that are the result of a hard-fought deal Obama signed in 2011 and that hit the Defense Department the hardest.

Members will also try to increase the government's borrowing authority and avoid a first-ever federal default; extend roughly 50 tax breaks; pass a defense policy bill that Obama has threatened to veto; renew the Federal Aviation Administration's authority to spend money and finally pass a long-term highway funding bill.

Congress was working under a late-October deadline for transportation. 

However, the Transportation Department said earlier this month that the Highway Trust Fund has enough money to pay for projects into next year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.