In a year when fixing the economy is expected to dominate debate on Capitol Hill, abortion -- an issue that won't go away -- is crowding onto the Republican agenda.
Two bills -- one permanently barring taxpayer funding of abortions and the other forbidding federally financed abortion coverage under the new health care law -- got hearings this week in the House. And they riled up activists on both sides of the debate.
Emotions came to the fore Tuesday at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. It attempts to write into permanent law the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal dollars from being used to pay for abortions through Medicaid or any other federal program. The Hyde Amendment must be renewed annually.
That bill, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), would also re-impose a ban on government funding of abortion in Washington D.C. That provision brought out about a dozen red-bandana-wearing activists protesting what they saw as an infringement on the city's right to self-govern. They made their point and left the Capitol Hill hearing room without incident.
A supporter of the bill, Kelly Fiedorek, told the Washington Post that consideration of anti-abortion legislation is consistent with a focus on jobs. "We are in a financial crisis," said Fiedorek, a staff attorney for Americans United for Life, "so this ensures that federal taxpayer funds are going to things that are important to the American people and not to something like abortion."
The second bill in play would amend the health care reform law to ensure that it does not permit abortion coverage. Advocates for the law have argued that it already rules out using any federal money for abortions. President Obama even signed an executive order reiterating the restriction. But many Republicans insist that provisions of the law could subsidize abortion providers and they campaigned on the issue last fall.
The measure, set for a hearing Wednesday in an Energy and Commerce health subcommittee, has bipartisan sponsorship in Reps. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) It also would prevent the government from denying funding to hospitals or other institutions that don't want to provide abotions.
Action on the abortion bills comes as no great surprise, as House Speaker John Boehner is anti-abortion and promised to be the "most pro-life speaker ever." Boehner may well have enough votes to get both bills through the GOP-controlled House.
Even so, Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, questioned, "What happened to the jobs agenda?" when the legislation was introduced last month. "How many people will be employed as part of their campaign to attack a woman's right to choose?"
On Tuesday, Sen. Al Franken was one of a half-dozen Democratic senators objecting to the House bills. "Supporting a woman's right to make decisions about her health means ensuring that women can access the full range of reproductive health care services safely and with dignity," he said in a statement.
Sen. Barbara Boxer said, "We are sending a clear message to House Republicans that their agenda on women's health is extreme, it breaks faith with a decades-long bipartisan compromise and it risks the health and lives of women."