WASHINGTON — The Senate appeared likely to reject a Republican effort to halt federal funds to Planned Parenthood on Monday. But it was just a prelude to a fall faceoff with higher stakes — a potential government shutdown that could reverberate into next year's presidential and congressional elections.
The effort by GOP senators was a response to an anti-abortion group's covertly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood officials dispassionately describing how they provide aborted fetus tissue for medical research.
The Republicans seemed short of the 60 votes needed to begin full debate of the money cutoff. However, the GOP is hoping to benefit from the videos and the Senate vote by galvanizing conservative, anti-abortion voters.
The issue is already creating heated talking points for Republican presidential candidates convening Thursday for their first debate of the campaign, with several — including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky — calling for Congress to end Planned Parenthood's federal assistance.
In the longer term, GOP leaders are hoping that three congressional committees' investigations, plus probes in several states and the expected release of additional videos, will produce evidence of Planned Parenthood wrongdoing and make it harder for Democrats to defend the organization.
Stung by past government shutdowns that voters have blamed on Republicans, GOP leaders have shown no interest in another one this fall. Federal agencies run out of money on Oct. 1, and Congress is tasked with passing legislation by then temporarily keeping the doors open until lawmakers and President Barack Obama can reach a longer-term agreement.
But it could be challenging for those Republican leaders to control their most conservative lawmakers, who are urged on by the party's anti-abortion activists. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., has said he expects to get several dozen signatures on a letter opposing any spending bill containing money for Planned Parenthood, and some GOP senators, including Cruz, Paul and others, have voiced similar sentiments.
Planned Parenthood receives more than $500 million yearly in government funds — including state payments — more than one-third of its annual $1.3 billion in revenue. It provides contraception, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, abortion and other services for 2.7 million people annually, mostly women.
By law, federal funds are already barred from being used for abortions except for cases of incest, rape or when a woman's life is in danger.
On Monday, with Republicans holding 54 of the Senate's 100 seats, 60 votes seemed out of reach for the current legislation. The measure calls for funneling Planned Parenthood's federal aid to other providers of health care to women, including hospitals, state and local agencies and federally financed community health centers.
Republicans say that transfer would enable women to continue receiving the health care they need because Planned Parenthood's nearly 700 clinics are far outnumbered by other providers, including almost 9,100 community health centers.
Planned Parenthood and Democrats contest that. They say many of the organization's centers are in areas with few alternatives for reproductive health care or for other services for the low-income women who comprise a majority of its clients.
Democrats generally have rallied against the bill, painting the GOP drive as an assault on women's health care. A small number of Democrats who might back the bill seemed likely to be balanced by Republicans who could oppose it.
Moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he would back the Republican legislation. He said he was "troubled by the callous behavior" of Planned Parenthood staff in the videos and said the group should not receive taxpayer aid until it answers questions about its practices.
The anti-abortion Center for Medical Progress has so far released four videos in which people posing as representatives of a company that purchases fetal tissue converse with Planned Parenthood officials. The videos have been especially controversial because of the casual descriptions by the Planned Parenthood officials of the abortion procedures they use to obtain tissue, and because some of the videos show close-ups of fetal organs in laboratories.
The center and some of its GOP supporters have said the videos show that Planned Parenthood sells the tissue for profit, which is illegal under federal law. Planned Parenthood says the videos are selectively edited and that the organization only recovers costs of the procedures — which is legal — and only gives the tissue to researchers with a mother's advance consent.