House Republicans are demanding a series of controversial abortion and health care policies in the annual health spending bill, setting up a showdown with Democrats and threatening passage of an omnibus spending package to keep the government open.
Democrats are vowing to block the slew of long-sought conservative priorities. The riders would cut off federal funding to Planned Parenthood, eliminate a federal family planning program and ax the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, according to sources on Capitol Hill. Republicans also want to insert a new prohibition on funding research that uses human fetal tissue obtained after an abortion.
The dispute has stalled negotiations on such other health issues as how much to spend on the opioid epidemic and prompted discussions about buying negotiators more time, with short-term government funding set to expire on March 23 and many of Congress’ other spending panels nearly finished with their bills.
Democrats say an agreement was near on overall funding levels for the fiscal 2018 Labor-HHS funding bill, typically one of the most contentious spending bills. But when top appropriators met to finalize the numbers, the Democrats said Republicans reneged on women’s health issues, according to Democratic sources familiar with the talks.
Those sudden demands stunned the top Democrats in the room, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who until then thought they were having productive talks with their GOP counterparts.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who leads the House Labor-HHS spending panel, has acknowledged that a delay in talks could force another short-term spending patch. Congress must approve new government funding by March 23 or risk a third shutdown this year.
That breakdown would be a blow to House GOP leaders, who have worked closely with appropriators to ensure each of the 12 panels in charge of discretionary spending finish ahead of that deadline to avoid any eleventh-hour brinkmanship.
Top Democrats, including Murray, say they will block the GOP women's health riders.
“President [Donald] Trump and Vice President [Mike] Pence have made absolutely clear they intend to interfere every way they can with a woman’s freedom to make the health care decisions that are right for her, and I’ve consistently made clear that undermining women’s health and expanding restrictions on women’s access to the full range of reproductive health care — including at trusted providers like Planned Parenthood — is a complete nonstarter," Murray said.
House Appropriations Committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing declined to comment on the policy riders. “The committee does not comment or speculate on funding or policy items that may or may not be included in future bills," she said.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Cole's counterpart in the Senate, confirmed to reporters this week that he was pushing for the conservative language on women’s health issues. But he also suggested that House Republicans may have to stand down and accept the conditions of last year’s spending package, which didn’t include the riders.
“I’d like most of the House language better on those issues. But you could go back to last year’s language and resolve most of those issues as well,” Blunt said.
Most appropriators, including Republicans, thought that they could sidestep the most contentious policy fights, believing the Trump administration could codify through regulations those policies that couldn’t get past congressional Democrats.
The Trump administration has already eliminated funding for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, prompting a lawsuit from health care providers.
But the administration signaled just last month that it wants to preserve the Title X family planning program — a portfolio the House GOP wants to kill.
Senior Trump health officials at HHS released the new application for Title X funding and stressed the program’s importance. The administration wants to expand the program to abstinence education programs and faith-based groups, reversing the Obama administration’s goal of providing all FDA-approved forms of contraception.
The Planned Parenthood defunding goes beyond previous GOP restrictions aimed at the group, which supports abortion rights and has long been the object of government shutdown fights. The organization would be cut off from all forms of federal funding, including Medicaid, Title X and maternal health programs. Republicans previously only tried to exclude Planned Parenthood from Medicaid.
The proposed fetal tissue ban could have an impact on research into Zika, some of which relies on tissue of fetuses that had microcephaly, the disease caused by the Zika virus.
Republicans also want to use the funding bill to go after Obamacare. They would prohibit funding for administering or enforcing the health care law, prohibit the administration from collecting a fee from insurance companies to run the insurance exchanges and eliminate more than half a billion dollars in funding for managing the program at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Jennifer Scholtes contributed to this report.