For months, Republicans on Capitol Hill had talked about slashing spending and downsizing the federal bureaucracy. But as a government shutdown threatened this week, the thorniest and most divisive of social issues again resurfaced: abortion rights.
Republicans in the House were insisting that a final budget package include a provision to strip financing from Planned Parenthood, long a target of conservative ire. Democrats accused House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) of holding up a potential compromise on the 2011 budget over a last-minute insistence on including abortion-rights restrictions.
Friday's drama showed anew that the battle over abortion, one that has raged now for four decades, is never dormant in Washington, even though polls have shown the issue is hardly at the forefront of concerns among most Americans.
The reason: Abortion is a bedrock issue for the political base of both major parties. For conservatives, it represents defending the right to life. For the left, it means protecting a woman's freedom to control her own body. Those fundamentally clashing views make splitting the difference much more difficult than reaching a compromise over, say, a disagreement on dollars and cents.
"On the one side, you've got pro-life folks and they've been trying to gut funding for Planned Parenthood for a long time," said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist who has written extensively about polarization as well as the abortion issue. "On the other side, you have Democrats who can't really give on the issue."
Thirty-eight years after abortion rights were guaranteed by the Supreme Court — and 35 years after the federal government outlawed public funding of abortions — the issue has become not just a moral question but a political tool.
Both sides raise money off it: Even as Democrats were blasting Republicans for their demands in the Capitol, Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, who co-chairs the abortion-rights caucus in Congress, sent out a letter asking voters for $100,000 in donations by the end of the day to fight "tea party extremists" in the House.
The issue also lies at the heart of both parties' efforts to reach out to women, which may explain why both Senate Democrats and House Republicans held dueling news conferences Friday, each featuring women.
The last-minute fracas stirred memories of a year ago, when a simmering dispute over abortion-funding provisions in the Democratic healthcare bill erupted into a conflict that saw abortion-rights advocates and opponents frantically descending on the Capitol, almost derailing the entire legislative effort.
A compromise was ultimately reached and President Obama signed an executive order reaffirming that no funds from the healthcare bill's subsidy provisions could be used for abortions.
Both sides a year ago accused the other of playing politics with the issue. Friday was no different, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) accused Republicans of willingness to shutter the government over abortion rights.
Boehner denied that this week's budget impasse was caused by the Planned Parenthood provision. But the message was undercut somewhat by conservatives within his caucus, who stressed their commitment to shutting down abortion providers and making the practice illegal. They suggested that the mission was as important as cutting federal spending.
"This whole debate is about doing the right thing," said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, chairman of the policy-minded Republican Study Committee. "We are doing everything we can to achieve savings and to protect and defend traditional American values."
At issue in the current budget dispute was a provision that sends federal money to Planned Parenthood for family planning and health services, such as cancer screenings. While the money cannot legally be used for abortions, Republicans nonetheless want to eliminate that funding, or hand control to states and redirect it away from Planned Parenthood.
The GOP also wanted to halt foreign aid to health organizations that promote or provide abortion services, as well as to the U.N. Population Fund, which provides reproductive, AIDS prevention and women's health services. Another provision sought to ban the District of Columbia, which is run by the federal government, from sending local tax revenue to groups that provide access to abortions.
Abortion-rights opponents in the House spent much of Friday disputing Planned Parenthood's contention that women's health services were at risk, arguing that the nonprofit's main mission was to perform abortions, not provide health services.
"They are abortion mills," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey.
Planned Parenthood has said that only a small part of its services involve abortions, and that stripping its federal funding would curb cancer screenings, HIV testing, birth control and other medical care.
"More than 90% of the healthcare Planned Parenthood provides is preventive," the organization's president, Cecile Richards, said in a statement.
Slightly more than half of the country supports legal abortion only in certain circumstances — a number that has not changed substantially since 1975, two years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe vs. Wade. About a fifth of Americans think there should be no restriction on abortion, and about the same proportion believe abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.
But a prominent social conservative and possible 2012 Republican presidential candidate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, said House Republicans were playing a dangerous game in tying a shutdown to the issue.
"Nobody's more pro-life than me. Nobody," Huckabee said in an interview on Fox Business Network. "But as much as I want to see Planned Parenthood defunded, as much as I want to see NPR lose their funding, the reality is the president and the Senate are never going to go along with that. So win the deal you can win and live to fight another day."
Staff writers Robin Abcarian in Los Angeles and Kathleen Hennessey in Washington contributed to this report.