Republican leaders are in discussions with a key bloc of House conservatives over ways to sanction Planned Parenthood for what some say is potentially illegal activity while avoiding a legislative fight that could result in a government shutdown.
Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus have floated a number of alternatives to a blanket defunding of the abortion provider, which receives more than $500 million in taxpayer funds per year, in meetings with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.).
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The majority leader’s regular "listening sessions" come in the wake of a series of videos that show Planned Parenthood executives discussing the organization’s sale of tissue and body parts from aborted fetuses for use in medical research.
HFC members say their ideal outcome would be a total revocation of federal funds for the group, and some are pushing for the Senate to use a procedural maneuver known as budget reconciliation to send a funding bill to the White House that strips Planned Parenthood of its federal support.
However, they also acknowledge that President Obama would veto such a measure, potentially resulting in a legislative standoff that would prevent the passage of a bill to keep the federal government funded through December.
"Conservatives and establishment Republicans in the House are working together to find a solution that addresses their concerns," an aide to a senior HFC member said. "The only people seriously discussing a government shutdown in Washington are Democrats and the media."
In an effort to preempt a shutdown fight, Republicans are discussing as many as four alternatives to a blanket defunding measure that, some HFC members hope, would take action on an issue that has galvanized the conservative base without risking a shutdown—or in a way that puts the president in a difficult position politically.
One such bill, authored by Rep. Diane Black (R., Tenn.), would strip Planned Parenthood of its funding for a single year and divert the money to community health centers that provide prenatal care and other women’s health services. A McCarthy spokesman said the House would consider that legislation on Friday.
It is not yet clear whether it will be tied to the must-pass government funding bill.
A bill criminalizing the killing of child who survives an abortion, sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R., Ariz.), is also expected to hit the floor this week.
Behind the scenes, members are discussing additional possibilities. One would strip Planned Parenthood of all of its federal funds while dramatically increasing funding for the types of community health centers covered by the Black bill. Another would condition a blanket defunding measure on a finding of criminal wrongdoing by the group.
"If the debate is more over potential illegal activity than it is over [the] performing of abortion, I think that you do pick up a lot of support from people that would not normally have the pro-life issue as their main hot-button," said Rep. Mark Meadows (R., N.C.), a founding HFC member, in a Wednesday interview.
HFC saw its first resignation on Wednesday over the Planned Parenthood issue. In a letter to his colleagues, Rep. Tom McClintock (R., Calif.) alleged an "eagerness" on their parts to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood and other key conservative issues.
"This tactic promises only to shield Senate Democrats from their responsibility for a government shutdown and to alienate the public from the pro-life cause at precisely the time when undercover videos of Planned Parenthood’s barbaric practices are turning public opinion in our favor," McClintock wrote.
Meadows said HFC and other Republicans are doing everything they can to try to address potential illegality by Planned Parenthood and what they see as a moral outrage while the federal government remains funded and operating.
"The only thing I would take exception with in [McClintock’s statement] is that the focus of the Freedom Caucus is to shut down the government," Meadows said. "I think just the opposite, it is to find a way to deal with [the Planned Parenthood issue] in a real manner and keep the government operating."
Still, Meadows cautioned that House leadership needs to work with conservative members to actually address the issue, not just pay lip service to the party’s pro-life base.
"Part of what we’re fighting here is not as much, ‘this is the line in the sand,’" he said. "It’s a deficit of trust that the American people have having seen these videos and saying ‘we don’t want empty rhetoric anymore.’"
Meadows said he has been "encouraged" by ongoing discussions with leadership on how to address the issue.
"It is incumbent upon us to find a way that we can address this issue, and as long as it’s addressed and we can show a path towards addressing it—a real path towards addressing it—I think people are willing to look at a realistic plan to do that."