WASHINGTON — Republican leaders hope House passage of bills targeting Planned Parenthood and curbing some abortion procedures will mollify fractious conservatives demanding a face-off with President Barack Obama that could trigger a federal shutdown.
The GOP-run chamber was on track to approve the two measures Friday, despite White House veto threats and opposition from most Democrats. One would block Planned Parenthood's federal funds for a year. The other would inflict criminal penalties on doctors who don't try saving infants born alive during abortions.
The bills were a reaction to videos showing Planned Parenthood officials casually describing how they provide researchers with tissue from aborted fetuses. The debate also underscored how the age-old fight over abortion could affect next year's elections because it touches emotional hotspots among each side's most loyal partisans and could be pivotal as each party tries wooing female voters.
"It's about preserving a pipeline of funding to the nation's largest abortion provider," Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., said of Democrats arguing that Planned Parenthood provides irreplaceable health services for women. "We all get that. So let's drop the phony women's health charade."
"This bill is spiteful, it's mean-spirited and it is cruel," Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said of the measure halting Planned Parenthood's funds. "It tells millions of low-income Americans, 'Forget your health, you can just die.' "
The anti-abortion activists who secretly recorded the videos say they show that Planned Parenthood is illegally profiting from organ sales. The organization says it's broken no laws and is being victimized by deceitfully edited recordings.
The White House, in a statement released Thursday evening, said Obama called the shutdown threat "a game of chicken with our economy that we cannot accept."
It was unclear if House approval of the two bills would help House Speaker John Boehner solve a political Rubik's Cube. The Ohio Republican's twin goals: avoiding a shutdown fight that GOP leaders warn would set voters against the party, while simultaneously appeasing conservatives who might try to oust him for not adequately confronting Obama.
"Our leaders wave the white flag every time there's a confrontation," said Rep. Mark Salmon, R-Ariz. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., said Boehner wants to "implement what the lobbyists want, not what the constituents of our district want."
At a closed meeting Thursday among House Republicans, leaders unveiled internal polling that attendees said showed most people would oppose a government shutdown — even those who have seen the videos and oppose financing Planned Parenthood.
Many Republicans argued that the polling showed a shutdown fight would be damaging and unwinnable, especially since Senate Democrats already derailed a bill erasing Planned Parenthood's funds.
"Pounding on the table doesn't turn 54 into 60 in the Senate," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., referring to the number of GOP senators and the number it would take to end Democratic filibusters.
The bill by Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., would transfer Planned Parenthood's federal money to thousands of government-backed community health centers. Supporters say that would keep women's health care intact, but opponents say those centers are overwhelmed and often far from women who need them.
Planned Parenthood gets around $450 million yearly in federal payments, mostly Medicaid reimbursements for handling low-income patients, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. That's around one-third of the $1.3 billion yearly budget for the organization, which has nearly 700 clinics and provides sexual disease testing, contraceptives and abortions.
Conservatives' determination to block Planned Parenthood's money has been partly fueled by the race for the GOP's presidential nomination. Several candidates used their Wednesday night debate to urge lawmakers to turn off that funding spigot.
But spotlighting GOP divisions, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., wrote Thursday to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, one of the presidential hopefuls. Cruz wants Republicans to oppose financing the government unless Planned Parenthood's money is cut off, defending his effort during the debate by saying, "I'm proud to stand for life."
Ayotte, who faces her own tough re-election fight next year, wrote that she opposed risking a shutdown "given the challenges and threats we face at home and abroad" and asked, "What is your strategy to succeed in actually defunding Planned Parenthood?"
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton released her own message to GOP leaders: "Don't attack women's health care. And don't shut down the government."