Senate Republicans are including a provision in their healthcare bill that would end federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider. But first, for the provision to pass, three women–two Republican senators, one unelected official–must give their stamp of approval.
The abortion debate has reached a critical juncture in America; more and more Americans are reconsidering their views on the controversial topic.
A Marist College national survey released in January reveals that 83 percent of American adults oppose spending U.S. tax dollars to facilitate abortions overseas, and 61 percent–including 61 percent of women–oppose spending tax dollars to help finance abortions in the United States.
Additionally, the survey found that nearly three in four Americans–including a majority of residents who say they are “pro-choice,” want significant restrictions imposed on abortion.
Data-focused website FiveThirtyEight, which ranks polling firms based on their accuracy, gives Marist College polls an “A” grade.
“The best-performing polls recently have been those from Monmouth University and those from Marist College,” writes Nate Silver, founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight. “Both apply ‘gold standard’ methodologies, using live telephone interviews and placing calls to cellphones as well as landlines, and both participate in the AAPOR Transparency Initiative.”
During the campaign, then-candidate Trump promised pro-life voters that he would defund Planned Parenthood, as long as the organization continued to perform abortions.
Because the GOP is trying to utilize a temporary process called “reconciliation” to move their healthcare bill forward (more on that later), they need only a simple majority to pass it. This means Republicans can afford to lose only two senators, which would then set up a dramatic tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.
However, the two votes in question may already be in jeopardy.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are two of the more moderate-to-liberal Republicans in the U.S. Senate. Both senators have developed a reputation for being pro-choice and staunch defenders of Planned Parenthood.
In March, Murkowski and Collins were the only Republican senators to vote against a measure that repealed the final rule proposed by the Obama administration in late December that banned states from blocking Title X family planning grants to Planned Parenthood and other health care providers that offer abortion.
The measure passed, 51-50, after Vice President Mike Pence cast a rare tie-breaking vote in favor of the bill.
Murkowski has on numerous occasions offered her support for the abortion clinic. She disappointed pro-life conservatives in 2015 when she joined with her Democrat colleagues to oppose a bill that would have eliminated federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
In a letter to an Alaska constituent, Murkowski reaffirmed her commitment to funding the abortion provider with taxpayer dollars.
“I am committed to ensuring that important provisions of the ACA, such as covering those with pre-existing conditions, continued support for Medicaid expansion, coverage for dependents and no lifetime limits, and funding for Planned Parenthood remain intact,” she wrote in the letter obtained by Politico on Friday.
Likewise, Collins has frustrated pro-life conservatives over the years with her liberal stance on abortion.
On a scale of 0-100, with a “0” score showing the individual is pro-choice and a “100” score showing the individual is pro-life, the NRLC (National Right to Life Committee) awarded Collins a score of 0. She also receives an 83 percent rating by NARAL Pro-Choice America, an organization that engages in political action and advocacy efforts to oppose restrictions on abortion and expand access to abortion, indicating a pro-choice voting record.
On Sunday, she criticized the decision to cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
“Well, first, let me say that it makes absolutely no sense to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood,” Collins said on ABC’s “This Week” program.
“There already are long-standing restrictions on the use of federal funds for abortion. So that’s not what this debate is about,” Collins added. “And Planned Parenthood is an important provider of health care services, including family planning and cancer screenings for millions of Americans, particularly women.”
Collins doubled down by calling the Planned Parenthood issue a “very important one” and one that she would consider before casting her vote.
The other woman who could decide the fate of Planned Parenthood is the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough. She is the first woman to hold the position since the Senate formally created it in 1935.
“MacDonough, who attended a preparatory high school in Connecticut and holds degrees from George Washington University and Vermont Law School, worked her way up in the Senate, starting as an assistant parliamentarian in 1999 and serving for 13 years before the Senate approved her as parliamentarian in 2012 at the recommendation of then-Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.),” Washington Post’s Paige Winfield Cunningham writes, in an article titled “This Senate staffer could change the course of the health-care debate.”
According to a report by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, “the Parliamentarian’s role is to advise the Presiding Officer and individual Senators on what the institution’s rules say and how best to use lessons learned from its past behavior to answer parliamentary questions in the present.”
“This relationship is reflected in the Senate’s precedents,” the report continues, “which explicitly state, ‘The Chair rules on points of order, not the Parliamentarian; the parliamentarian merely advises the Chair.’ In short, the Presiding Officer may choose to disregard the Parliamentarian’s advice regarding how to apply a precedent to a specific parliamentary situation when the rules are silent.”
In this case, the “presiding officer” would likely be Vice President Mike Pence.
Even though MacDonough has not yet formally decided if the provision meets the Senate’s standard to be included in the budget reconciliation process, Sen. Collins told reporters Wednesday that she believes the effort to tie abortion restrictions to tax credits will not pass Senate rules.
“I believe that did not pass through the parliamentarian’s review, so I don’t expect that to be in there,” Collins said.
TIME’s Elizabeth Dias reports that “some social conservative leaders now fear that the Planned Parenthood defunding will be allowed, but the federal subsidy restrictions for plans covering abortion will be blocked from the bill.”
“Social conservative leaders have been lobbying behind closed doors for weeks to convince Senate leadership and the Parliamentarian’s office that both provisions serve a primarily budgetary purpose,” Dias added.
There’s also a story from Roll Call, which reports that GOP Senate leaders “are sending signals that, if necessary, they plan to invoke a seldom-used rule included in the Congressional Budget Act that would allow Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi to skirt a decision from the chamber’s parliamentarian.”
A move of this magnitude would allow Republicans to advance their healthcare insurance bill without heeding MacDonough’s advice.
Still, none of this will be necessary if MacDonough determines that the measure passes muster under the reconciliation process — a decision she has been prone to make in the past.
For instance, in 2015, MacDonough ruled in favor of conservatives by allowing a section to remain in a bill that banned Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid reimbursements. The measure said Medicaid money couldn’t go to certain abortion providers, while not explicitly naming Planned Parenthood.
Signs point to Murkowski and Collins opposing the Senate healthcare bill on the grounds that Planned Parenthood would no longer receive federal funding. However, in the process, they would be ignoring the wishes of more than three in five Americans who are opposed to spending U.S. tax dollars to finance abortions.
MacDonough, on the other hand, is most likely to be swayed by precedent. Ruling against a measure similar to the one that she approved in 2015 would be a surprise to Republicans and a victory for Democrats opposed to the bill.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) has said that the Senate will pass its bill to repeal and replace Obamacare “by the end of July.”