WASHINGTON — Republicans accused Planned Parenthood on Tuesday of spending millions of dollars on political activities, travel and lavish salaries, as the GOP tried to build a case for terminating the group's federal money after a series of surreptitiously recorded videos.
Firing back, Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood's president, said taxpayer money is used to provide sexual disease testing, contraceptives and other health care for women and said none of it is used for political activity. And she said videos released this summer showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing their provision of fetal tissue to medical researchers have prompted increased threats against clinics.
"These acts against women and health care providers don't reflect American values or the rule of law, and I hope this committee will condemn them," she told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Richards' appearance marked the group's first public face-to-face encounter with Republicans since the videos elevated abortion — and a drive to block Planned Parenthood's federal payments — to a top-tier political issue.
Several Republican presidential hopefuls have condemned Planned Parenthood for its work providing fetal tissue. And conservatives' demands that Congress cut the group's federal payments — for which Republicans lack the votes to succeed — indirectly contributed to the GOP unrest that prompted House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to announce his resignation last week.
Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said the panel's examination of tax and other documents showed that the group has given $22 million over the past five years to its political affiliate, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. He said it also spent more than $5 million on "exorbitant" travel in 2013 and paid Richards — who sat at the witness table in front of him — $590,000 in annual salary.
Richards said none of the money Planned Parenthood transfers to its political arm comes from federal taxpayers. The organization receives about a third of its $1.3 billion annual budget, around $450 million, from federal coffers, chiefly reimbursements for treating Medicaid's low-income patients. Virtually no federal dollars can be used for abortions.
Chaffetz said that the group's infusion of federal money lets it use its non-federal dollars for politics.
"That has absolutely nothing to do with young women who need a breast exam," said Chaffetz. "It's a political organization."
In an approaching campaign season in which both parties are competing for female votes, Democrats leapt to Richards' defense.
Citing some GOP lawmakers who interrupted Richards' answers — a common practice in congressional hearings — Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., criticized "the disrespect, the misogyny rampant here today." And Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., accused Chaffetz of "beating up on a woman, to our witness here today, for making a good salary."
Richards said she is "proud" of its provision of fetal tissue for research but also sought to minimize the organ donations as a small part of its work. She also lashed out at her critics for relying on the videos, which were made by David Daleiden and the other anti-abortion activists posing as executives of a phony firm that buys fetal tissue for scientists.
Abortion foes say the videos show the group breaks federal laws barring for-profit fetal tissue sales and altering abortion procedures to obtain usable organs. Planned Parenthood and its defenders say it's done nothing illegal and says that Daleiden dishonestly edited the videos to distort what was said.
"The outrageous accusations leveled against Planned Parenthood, based on heavily doctored videos, are offensive and patently untrue," Richards said.
In her written remarks, Richards said just 1 percent of Planned Parenthood's nearly 700 clinics obtain fetal tissue for researchers seeking disease cures. She said that work is just a "minuscule" part of her organization's services, which include sexual disease testing and the provision of contraception and abortions.
So far, the most damage inflicted on Planned Parenthood by the videos is the insensitive way some of its officials discuss the procedures. That has drawn apologies from Planned Parenthood and bitter criticism from Republicans.
Most Democrats have rallied behind the group, and President Barack Obama has threatened to veto GOP legislation cutting its federal money. Public opinion polls show majorities oppose blocking Planned Parenthood's taxpayer dollars. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., fearing voter anger, have rebuffed conservatives who would shut down the government if Obama doesn't agree to halt Planned Parenthood's money.
Democrats have used a Senate filibuster — a virtually endless procedural delay — to block GOP legislation halting Planned Parenthood's federal payments. So two House committees plan to approve filibuster-proof legislation shifting Planned Parenthood's Medicaid funds — about $350 million — to community health centers.
The bill also would keep a promise made during this spring's budget debate to repeal key elements of Obama's signature health care law.
Planned Parenthood has defended itself with newspaper ads, petition campaigns and lawsuits against state efforts to curb its funding. On Tuesday, volunteers and supporters scheduled events in nearly 90 cities and planned to give lawmakers more than 2 million signatures on "I Stand With Planned Parenthood" petitions.
Associated Press writer David Crary contributed to this report.