In their rush to slash the federal budget, House Republicans are taking aim at Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest provider of abortions, after a campaign season that largely ignored social issues.
A coalition of abortion foes joined an undercover video activist Thursday in demanding that lawmakers cut all funding for Planned Parenthood, which they accused of complicity in the trafficking of underage girls for prostitution. Planned Parenthood denies the allegations.
The attack came a day after House Republicans announced a spending proposal for the rest of the budget year that would eliminate funding for a 40-year-old family planning program. Planned Parenthood is the largest recipient of the so-called Title X funds, which cover contraception and cancer screenings, but not abortions, for low-income patients.
The proposed spending cuts added momentum to a burgeoning feud over abortion in Congress. Buoyed by the arrival of dozens of new antiabortion Republicans, conservatives have introduced several bills that would further distance taxpayers from abortion.
Current policy already bars federal money for abortion in Medicaid and other government programs except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the woman.
In response to the new push, Democrats and their allies accused Republicans of mounting an attack on women's health and veering far from their promise of a laser-like focus on economic issues.
"The new leadership ran on the agenda of jobs and the economy and what they're giving us instead is possibly the most extreme assault on reproductive rights in decades," said Donna Crane, policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice America. "It's a classic bait-and-switch."
Title X funding had not been targeted for major cuts since 1995, Crane said, when the effort failed in a Republican-led House. Planned Parenthood said it received $363 million a year in government grants and contracts at the state, local and federal level.
But the current climate, in which calls for fiscal discipline rule the day, presents a new opportunity for antiabortion Republicans who have long opposed Planned Parenthood's receipt of federal funds. Lawmakers said they planned to remain focused on cutting the budget while also moving forward on an issue of key importance to many members of their base.
On Thursday, they noted that their new allies in the House and the economic constraints were both working in their favor.
"This is when we're going to defund Planned Parenthood," said Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.). "Now is the season for us to do this."
Although the cuts may be embraced by the House, they are likely to find much more resistance in the Senate, where Democrats hold the majority.
The fight against Planned Parenthood gained steam from a series of videos recently released by a young antiabortion activist. Some of the videos, shot undercover by the group Live Action, appear to show Planned Parenthood staff advising people who claim to be engaged in sex work on how to seek medical care for underage girls.
At a news conference on Capitol Hill, Live Action President Lila Rose, who has targeted clinics for several years with sting operations, said the videos showed the employees "willing to aid and abet the human trafficking of teenage girls."
One such video resulted in the firing of a Planned Parenthood employee in New Jersey. But in all other cases, the videos are "heavily edited and manipulated," said Planned Parenthood spokesman Stuart Schear.
"The organization is not credible and their tapes cannot be trusted," Schear said.
The debate is not likely to die down quickly. Stearns, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight panel, said he planned to call Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to testify on the matter.
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said he would introduce an amendment to cut all federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Pence also has introduced a bill to prohibit Title X funds from being awarded to any healthcare provider that performs abortions.
Another bill, introduced by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), would eliminate federal tax breaks for employers who offer health insurance if their plans cover abortion.