GOP looks to spending fights for wins on abortion, trans care, contraception

The perennial wrangling over abortion policy is no longer limited to Congress’ annual health care spending bill. This year, Republicans have tucked anti-abortion language into nearly every corner of the appropriations process, complicating the delicate negotiations as House leaders race to bring the first of a dozen bills to the floor before the August recess.

House Democrats plan to fight the provisions wherever they can — including by forcing amendment votes in committee and on the floor that they acknowledge are likely to fail.

“I’m going to keep offering amendments to highlight who they are,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a senior appropriator who is also running for Senate, told POLITICO. “People need to know who is on their side and who isn’t.”

The White House on Monday threatened to veto the GOP spending bills for the FDA, Agriculture and Veterans Affairs departments over the legislations’ deep funding cuts and “partisan policy provisions with devastating consequences including harming access to reproductive healthcare.”

For now, Democrats are largely counting on the Senate to act as a “firewall” against the House health proposals, setting up a clash in the coming months when the two chambers must reconcile their differences. But some in the party fear they may be forced to compromise to keep the government open because of the sheer number of riders Republicans are attaching to the spending bills.

In the Senate, Appropriations Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said House attempts to insert riders into the spending bills “will not fly” in her committee and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), another member of the panel, told POLITICO, “we’re going to ignore it.”

“Anything that’s partisan won’t be enacted,” Schatz said. “So they can do whatever they want, but we are the only bipartisan game in town.”

Several House Democrats voiced confidence in the Senate serving as a bulwark against the abortion and other health provisions becoming law — citing the upper chamber’s recent success in voting eight out of 12 spending bills out of committee with the support of Republicans and without the new abortion riders.

Still, with a group of hardline Republicans threatening to tank the spending bills if they don’t get their way, some Democrats remain nervous.

Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) fears the more budget riders the House GOP pushes through, the more leverage it’ll have, and said Democrats have not reached a consensus on what they’re willing to accept.

“Our caucus is having a very difficult time,” she said — torn between a desire to avoid a shutdown and stopping what they consider an “extreme agenda” from becoming law.

“We’ll see where we land on that, but that’s definitely a debate within our own caucus,” she said. “But we have to wake up to the reality that we are in. Whether our Democrats in the Senate block all of these ill-conceived riders, this is going to be part of the negotiations that will take place sometime this year on every single one of the 12 bills.”

Leaders on both sides have long fought to keep partisan rancor out of the appropriations process — with varying degrees of success. For decades, Democrats and Republicans have been locked in a stalemate, even when one party controlled both chambers. But after a half-century streak of relative stability, with Congress repeatedly extending the same handful of restrictions on federal funding for abortion, Republicans are going on offense.

“We’ve long had a detente where the Republicans agree not to add any new riders if the Democrats agree not to take any out,” said Erika Sward, the assistant vice president of national advocacy for the non-partisan American Lung Association — one of many health advocacy groups tracking the negotiations. “But now we’re seeing an attempt from House Republicans to add more than 100 more riders in addition to keeping in place what we refer to as the ‘legacy riders.’ And a lot of these we see as bad policies that jeopardize our nation’s health.”

Republicans’ financial services bill, for instance, includes riders barring federal workers’ health insurance from covering abortion, and blocking Washington, D.C., from using its own money to support abortion services. And their Veterans Affairs bill would end a Biden administration policy that makes abortion available to some beneficiaries even in states that ban the procedure.

GOP members leading the charge insist the moves are an appropriate response to the Biden administration’s efforts to protect and expand abortion rights post-Roe v. Wade through agency rules and executive actions, including support for military members’ travel to states where abortion is legal and the elimination of some Trump-era restrictions on foreign aid to organizations that counsel patients on abortion.

“They’re the ones that have changed the game and the rules of the game, not us,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the vice chair of the Appropriations Committee, told POLITICO. “It’s very unwise when the military, without thinking through the implications of this, implemented its policies.”

Conservative groups working with House Republicans are also urging members to push for a range of international and domestic policy changes in the spending bills — from World Health Organization funding to vaccine mandate — stressing that it’s their best and possibly only chance of getting the measures through.

“You use the tools you have,” said Drew Keyes, a senior policy analyst with the Paragon Health Institute. “It’s a constitutional duty.”

Tensions erupted this week when GOP appropriators moved to strip earmarked funding from the transportation and housing bill for three LGBT community centers that provide mental health and substance abuse services. The usually staid and wonky hearing devolved into a cacophony of swearing and shouting, and leaders had to recess multiple times.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, compared working with her GOP colleagues to “negotiating with terrorists,” though she later agreed to have those remarks stricken from the record, while other Democrats decried the Republican moves as “disgusting and ugly bigotry.”

The uptick in riders is a sign of how hardliners have gained outsized influence in the narrow House GOP majority, giving Freedom Caucus members intent on slashing spending and advancing abortion restrictions key committee roles and forcing GOP leadership to accommodate their demands.

“Any one of the Republicans can call for a speaker vote, so the extreme part of the party has taken over everything,” Torres said. “Their talking points are no longer talking points. They are actually becoming riders and amendments.”

Cole and other Republicans who have lived through decades of spending fights admit that most of these riders won’t make it to President Joe Biden’s desk.

“It doesn’t become law if it doesn’t become bipartisan someplace along in the process, and each side’s figured that out,” Cole said. “There was a Democratic effort to overreach and get rid of the Hyde Amendment, but they weren’t able to move any Republicans, so they haven’t been able to make any progress there. And we’ll have the same kinds of issues now.”

Still, several influential anti-abortion, advocacy and former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence affiliated groups, including Advancing American Freedom and the National Right to Life Committee, are cheering House Republicans’ efforts to reshape social policy via Congress’ power of the purse, urging them to “continue to promote and protect policies that defend unborn children and their mothers from the brutality of abortion.”

“We look forward to working with you to defend these provisions as the bills continue through the appropriations process,” they wrote to top appropriators earlier this month.

Kristi Hamrick, the chief policy strategist with Students for Life, said the letter is part of a bigger pressure campaign aimed at encouraging Republicans supportive of anti-abortion riders and confronting those uncomfortable with them.

“This goes to the core of our argument against people who say abortion should just be a state issue,” she said. “It’s already a federal issue. The federal government is already involved in abortion. So if you really believe it should be entirely up to states to decide, you should support these defunding measures.”

Some of the riders, however, go too far for some moderate Republicans, particularly those from districts that voted for Biden. And with Republicans only able to lose four votes on each bill, even a small defection could put passage in jeopardy.

Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.) announced his opposition this week to the provision in the Agriculture and FDA spending bill banning mail delivery of abortion pills, saying in a statement to POLITICO that if it remains in the bill when it comes to the House floor, “I cannot support it and will vote no.”

Democratic groups repeatedly hit Molinaro on abortion during his reelection campaign in 2022, running ads accusing him of siding with Republicans who favor a national ban. Molinaro, who at the time sent letters to TV stations demanding they stop airing the ads and touted his record supporting abortion rights, narrowly won, helping Republicans win control of the House.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the former chair of the Democratic National Committee, said the party won’t hesitate to use the upcoming votes in a similar way to squeeze frontline Republicans in 2024.

“If Republicans think they’re going to win the presidency and keep the majority in the House on culture wars, particularly on the backs of women and their reproductive rights, they’re living on another planet,” she said. “Republicans are clearly tone deaf and not listening to women and families and I think they’ll be in electoral peril as a result.”

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