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GOP seeks end to Planned Parenthood money as both parties play to their base

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), center, with Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), left, and John Thune (R-S.D.) speaks about Planned Parenthood in Washington last week.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), center, with Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), left, and John Thune (R-S.D.) speaks about Planned Parenthood in Washington last week.

(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

Republican senators, including several running for their party’s nomination for president, are testing whether voter attitudes toward Planned Parenthood have changed with a Senate vote Monday on a bill that would cut off federal money to the nation’s large provider of family planning services.

Republicans hope that disclosure of graphic undercover videos in which Planned Parenthood employees talk about the little-known medical trade in fetal organs and tissue have changed public sentiment toward the group and toward abortion.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who led efforts to draft the bill, says he believes voters who have long sided with Democrats on abortion rights may begin to have second thoughts.

“I think there are some pro-choice Democrats -- there are many pro-choice Americans -- who are horrified by this,” Paul told Fox’s Sean Hannity. “I think we may well get some Democrats who are going to say, ‘Enough is enough. We can’t keep funding a group that does this.’”

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So far, however, leading Democrats have stood behind Planned Parenthood even as some express dismay about the videos. Democrats have emphasized Planned Parenthood’s role in providing medical services other than abortions, including cancer screenings and birth control.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, called the videos disturbing even as she backed the group.

“If this feels like a full-on attack on women’s health, that’s because it is,” Clinton said in a video released Monday in which she specifically criticized Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Rick Perry. “When they attack women’s health, they attack America’s health, and it’s wrong and we’re not going to let them get away with it. We’re not going back, were going to fight back. I’m proud to stand with Planned Parenthood. I’ll never stop fighting to protect the ability and right of every woman in this country to make her own health decisions.”

For decades, the law has forbidden federal funds to be used at Planned Parenthood or anywhere else to pay for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s life. That law is regularly renewed by Congress. Under Medicaid and the government’s Title X family planning program, Planned Parenthood receives an estimated $500 million annually for other types of healthcare services.

Even Paul acknowledged that his bill to cut off the family planning money, written with Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst and backed by a rival GOP presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, would probably fall short of the 60 votes needed to advance. A Democratic-led filibuster blocked the bill Monday, 53 to 46, on a largely party-line vote, even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) entered a procedural motion that promises Republicans will try again.

Republican presidential candidates Paul, Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) voted in support, while independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, was opposed. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) backed the bill but did not vote.

That makes Monday’s vote more of a political exercise than a legislative one. And the long-term political outcome is uncertain.

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Voter attitudes toward abortion have held fairly constant for the last 20 years, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, with a slight majority of Americans, 51%, believing abortion should be legal in most cases and 43% saying it should be illegal all or most of the time.

On both sides, the Senate vote is likely to motivate those with the most solid views on abortion. Republicans have been fundraising off the videos, in which Planned Parenthood personnel talk openly about providing organs and tissues from aborted fetuses for medical research.

Republicans in Congress also have launched an investigation into Planned Parenthood.

Federal law allows fetal organs and tissues to be used in research and allows groups that donate the tissues to be reimbursed for their costs. It does not allow donors to take more money than that. Planned Parenthood maintains it has operated within the law and has not profited off the transfer of the fetal tissue.

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Monday’s vote and a likely companion later in the House will not resolve those questions.

“Unfortunately, it’s a show vote because there is zero chance the president will sign it as a stand-alone bill,” said Rick Tyler, spokesman for the Cruz campaign. “The relevant question to the 2016 campaign is which candidate would actually sign the bill.”

For the latest from Congress and 2016 campaign follow @LisaMascaro

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