Opinion: Senate maneuvering spares Planned Parenthood -- for now

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday.

(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

A series of hidden-camera videos by anti-abortion activists capturing Planned Parenthood executives discussing tissue harvesting from aborted fetuses has renewed calls by Republicans to eliminate all federal support for the organization. But as bad as it’s been lately in Washington for Planned Parenthood, the group can actually thank Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for preventing things from getting even worse.

Granted, McConnell would not see it that way. But some pro-life conservatives do.

As ringmaster of the Greatest Deliberative Body On Earth, McConnell has two essential duties. In no particular order, they are to govern and to maintain GOP control over the Senate. From a more selfish standpoint, he also needs to keep the troops on his side of the aisle reasonably happy in order to keep his post as majority leader.


The governing part has been one of McConnell’s strengths this year. While House Republicans flirted with a pointless and politically damaging shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security in March, McConnell pushed a “clean” funding bill through with bipartisan support and waited for the House GOP to come to its senses. The Senate, in fact, has seen more bipartisan deal-making on major issues than it did under the leadership of Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada -- for example, consider the fast-track bill, the proposed replacement for the “No Child Left Behind” education law and the new approach to Medicare doctor reimbursements.

To McConnell, these displays of functionality also serve the second objective, maintaining GOP control over the Senate. In next year’s elections, almost twice as many Republicans will be up for reelection than Democrats -- including the dozen freshmen elected in the GOP sweep of 2010. The majority leader has made it clear, repeatedly, that he will run the chamber in a way that shows the public that Republicans can be trusted with the keys to government.

(House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) have echoed this sentiment, promising to keep the federal lights on and the trains moving. But their hold over members of their caucus is more tenuous than McConnell’s.)

Which brings us back to Planned Parenthood. Congress faced yet another important deadline this week, needing to reauthorize the main federal transportation program by the end of July in order to keep money flowing into (and out of) the Highway Trust Fund. This is the sort of must-pass legislation that lawmakers love to use as leverage, in the hope of forcing folks on the other side of the issue to bend to their will. Three GOP senators -- two of them presidential candidates -- stepped up to the plate, with Ted Cruz of Texas readying an amendment to block the nuclear nonproliferation deal recently struck with Iran, and Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of McConnell’s home state submitting proposals to cut off all federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

McConnell, who had negotiated a plan with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to renew the highway program for six years, used the majority leader’s parliamentary prerogatives to block the amendments in favor of one to revive the Export-Import Bank, which conservatives and Tea Party-aligned Republicans have come to view as a symbol of All That Is Wrong In Washington. Joined by most of his Senate colleagues, McConnell then rebuffed efforts by Cruz and Lee to allow votes on their proposals anyway.

These moves brought out the McConnell haters in the GOP, but had they paused to consider what was happening, they would have recognized the logic. McConnell had promised supporters of the Ex-Im Bank that he would give them a chance to revive it. Still, he did so on a measure that still had significant hurdles to overcome before it could be signed into law. The Senate’s highway bill has to be reconciled with the House’s version, and the House GOP leadership seems determined to leave Ex-Im in the dustbin of history. So McConnell’s maneuver falls well short of an Ex-Im rescue.

Allowing votes on the Iran deal and Planned Parenthood, on the other hand, would have put highway funding in jeopardy. That became even more apparent when the House went home for the summer after passing a three-month extension of the highway program with no riders related to Planned Parenthood, Iran or any other veto bait. Facing a choice between shutting down the highway program and sending the House’s stopgap bill to President Obama, McConnell and the Senate opted for the latter.

Paul will still get a vote on his proposal to defund Planned Parenthood, but that proposal is now a standalone Senate bill. That means the vote will probably be on a motion to begin debate, and Democrats are likely to filibuster. Planned Parenthood’s opponents don’t appear to have the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, so the measure appears doomed.

It’s not really a win for Planned Parenthood, it’s more of a reprieve. More must-pass measures will come up soon, including the appropriations bills needed to keep the government running after the current fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.

There is already a huge battle looming between Obama and congressional Republicans over funding levels for defense and domestic programs. The president has vowed to veto any and all spending bills until Republicans change their plan to lift spending caps on the Pentagon but not on non-defense programs, and there hasn’t been any real effort yet by the two parties to fashion a compromise.

This dispute will sorely test McConnell’s no-shutdowns pledge, considering how resolute both sides appear to be on that issue. And it’s possible that this larger battle will lead Republicans to set aside their drive to punish Planned Parenthood. More likely, though, the organization’s funding will become another chit in those negotiations -- especially if the “gotcha” videos resume after Congress returns from its August recess.

Follow Healey’s intermittent Twitter feed: @jcahealey