House Speaker John Boehner said he wanted to be "the most pro-life speaker ever" and on Thursday the Ohio Republican showed how he plans do that by hailing new bills aimed at barring federal funds from paying for abortions.
The most ambitious legislation is the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," a measure that again reprises the health care reform battle from the last Congress when disputes over abortion funding played a crucial role. Only this new bill would go further than anything ever considered by Congress because it would make the so-called Hyde Amendment permanent and applicable across the entire federal budget.
"This common-sense legislation reflects the will of the people and deserves the support of the House," Boehner said at a press conference on Thursday, flanked by Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, a longtime abortion opponent and chief sponsor of the new bill. "It is one of our highest legislative priorities. As such, I have directed that it receive the designation of H.R. 3."
The Hyde Amendment, approved in 1976, is named after the late Illinois Republican Henry Hyde. It prevents the federal government from using tax money to fund abortions through Medicaid, which is appropriated through the budget of the Health and Human Services Department. Congress passes the Hyde Amendment as a matter of course every year, but abortion opponents have been looking for an opportunity to make it permanent and apply it more broadly.
The backlash over health care reform provided that chance, and H.R. 3 -- along with related bills in the pipeline -- is the result.
The health care reform bill that passed the House last year included the so-called Stupak amendment that explicitly barred the use of taxpayer dollars from funding abortion coverage. It carries the name of then-Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak, a pro-life representative whose support for the bill was crucial in drawing backing from other conservative Democrats.
But the Senate health care measure did not have the same explicit abortion funding ban -- though most experts said the Senate version also would not allow such funding. Because of Republican filibuster threats, the Senate bill became the final version, and Stupak and others went along with it after President Obama issued an executive order reiterating that no federal funds would be allowed to pay for abortions under health care reform.
Republicans and anti-abortion activists still argued that the reform measure was a "massive" and "unprecedented" taxpayer subsidy for abortion providers, and they campaigned hard on that theme last fall with a pledge to either repeal health care altogether or to pass a bill plugging the purported streams of abortion funding. That helped push Republicans to the majority in the House and resulted in the defeat or forced retirement -- as in Stupak's case -- of half the 40 or so pro-life Democrats in Congress
At Thursday's press conference, Boehner again disputed Democratic claims that the health care reform law does not provide for abortion funding and that the new bill is not necessary.
"[W]e had an opportunity during the health care debate to include the Stupak language, which would have made clear -- in law -- that taxpayer funding of electable abortions is prohibited," Boehner said. "That did not occur. And clearly there's an awful lot of doubt as to where the administration really is on this issue. I think that the will of the people is there will be an act that's clear cut -- a prohibition -- on the use of taxpayer funds for electable abortions."
Pro-choice groups derided H.R. 3 as "Stupak on steroids" and said it showed the new Republican leadership in the House is putting the fight against abortion rights over efforts to create jobs.
"They are out of touch with our country's values and priorities," said Nancy Keenan
, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "What happened to the jobs agenda? How many people will be employed as part of their campaign to attack a woman's right to choose?"
Thursday's back-and-forth is only the first salvo in what is expected to be a long-running battle over abortion during the next two years.
Also on Thursday, GOP Rep. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania introduced the "Protect Life Act," which would amend specifically the health care reform law to ensure there is no funding for abortion or abortion coverage.
Illinois Democrat Dan Lipinski is a co-sponsor of the Smith bill, the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," and it is possible either that bill or the Pitts legislation could garner more support than Wednesday's party-line vote to repeal the entire health care package. That vote, the GOP's top priority, drew just three Democratic votes and is not expected to go anywhere.
Smith on Thursday noted that his bill would not defund Planned Parenthood, but that a bill already introduced by Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, the "Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act,"
would accomplish that goal.