Abortion Provisions Lead to Tensions Over Spending Bill

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03/09/2018 | 02:44 am

By Kristina Peterson and Stephanie Armour

WASHINGTON -- A push from the White House and congressional Republicans to add new antiabortion provisions into a sweeping spending bill has divided lawmakers as they work to reach a deal that will fund the government beyond mid-March.

Republican lawmakers want to expand restrictions that already prevent federal funding from going to abortions, and they also want to fully cut federal funding to Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which has long been a target of conservatives.

But Democrat lawmakers said the demands are deal breakers they can't support -- and will battle with Republicans in the coming days over what is included in the spending bill needed before the government's current funding expires on March 23.

Republicans, who control both chambers of Congress and the White House, argue their majorities should enable them to secure conservative policy wins that are key issues with their voters.

"Whether we can get 100% of everything we want? Obviously that's not possible," said Rep. Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee. "But we have the House, the Senate, we have the presidency. Republicans should be able to get a good many wins in the bill."

But Democrats whose votes are critical for any spending deal agreement have said they consider the provisions to be major hurdles, which they are determined to block in the final stretch of negotiations.

While Republicans have sought in the past to curb Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood, they now want to cut off all money the organization gets from federal programs.

Republicans have "thrown a wrench" into bipartisan health-care negotiations "to cater to their far-right ideological base," said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the Senate Democrat leading health-care negotiations in the bill.

Congress has already passed a bipartisan bill setting the overall funding level for the spending bill, boosting it above levels agreed to in 2011.

Now lawmakers are hashing out the details of the bill that would map out specifically how the federal government can spend those funds -- in essence, figuring out how to divide up the paycheck.

The standoff over abortion risks torpedoing a hard-fought bipartisan plan that would shore up the ailing Affordable Care Act markets.

Part of that plan, championed by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) and Ms. Murray, would restore billions of dollars to insurers that offer subsidies to low-income consumers. President Donald Trump in October halted the payments, saying they were illegal. Many lawmakers want to restore them to curb rising premiums.

GOP lawmakers, however, only want to give the restored payments to insurers that don't also offer plans covering abortions. Democrats say that would put first-of-a-kind federal restrictions on private insurers and deprive women access to abortion.

"This clearly is about trying to stabilize the markets themselves and do everything we can to not have an increase in premiums," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley of New York. "Instead they're using this a vehicle to advance their social agenda," he said of Republicans.

Rep. Tom Cole (R., Okla.), the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees this portion of the spending bill, said the restrictions around the subsidies are still being negotiated.

Antiabortion groups that have used their political might to back GOP lawmakers' elections have said this is one of their highest priorities.

"On the part of the pro-life movement, the nonnegotiable thing is the Hyde language in the subsidies," said Mallory Quigley, spokeswoman with the Susan B. Anthony List.

The so-called Hyde Amendment already bans the use of taxpayer funds for most abortions.

Republicans are also seeking other restrictions. They object to a proposal that would let Planned Parenthood get grants through a federal family planning program known as Title X. The Trump administration has been focusing more heavily on abstinence-based approaches. They also want to use the funding bill to end the use of fetal tissue from abortions from research, and they want to roll back money for a teen pregnancy prevention grant program.

Many of the GOP lawmakers' demands are in line with changes also sought by Mr. Trump in his fiscal 2019 budget.

--Michelle Hackman contributed to this article.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com and Stephanie Armour at stephanie.armour@wsj.com

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