Mitch McConnell is in a tough spot. Right now the activist wing of his party is positively militant over the Planned Parenthood “sting” videos, which conservatives claim (without justification) show the women’s health provider “trafficking” in fetal tissues obtained from abortion procedures, and calls for Planned Parenthood’s federal funding to be shut off are raining down on Congress. With funding for the federal government set to expire at the end of September, a small (but influential) group of conservatives is demanding that Republicans leaders in Congress, like McConnell, use the funding deadline to force a showdown with President Obama and the Democrats and link funding for Planned Parenthood to continued appropriations for the federal government. “The budget and appropriations fights are forthcoming,” Erick Erickson wrote last month. “If Barack Obama is willing to risk a government shutdown because he demands our tax dollars continue funding an organization that kills our children and sells their organs, we should have that fight.”
McConnell does not want to go down this road, and earlier this week he made plain that he has no intention of forcing a shutdown fight over Planned Parenthood. As reported by Roll Call, McConnell went on a Kentucky news program and laid it out plainly – the votes aren’t there to defund Planned Parenthood, and even if they were, Obama’s got his veto pen:
“We just don’t have the votes to get the outcome that we’d like,” McConnell said. “I would remind all of your viewers: The way you make a law in this country, the Congress has to pass it and the president has to sign it. The president has made it very clear he’s not going to sign any bill that includes defunding of Planned Parenthood, so that’s another issue that awaits a new president hopefully with a different point of view about Planned Parenthood.”
No one should blame McConnell for wanting to avoid a shutdown, given that Republicans always lose shutdown fights. He tried picking a shutdown fight over immigration as one of his first acts as majority leader, which resulted in the GOP caving completely to the Democrats because they had no other option. He’s understandably not eager to go down that road again.
Instead, McConnell is doing his best to play the long game. Shutting down the government now would imperil the GOP’s chances of holding on to the Senate in 2016, and any chance they’ll have at actually defunding Planned Parenthood will require Republican control of Congress and the White House. He’s preaching a pragmatic approach to politics: be patient, work toward the larger goal, and don’t do anything stupid in the meantime.
The problem McConnell faces is that conservatives don’t want to wait and seem to delight in behaving very stupidly. They are angry over Planned Parenthood now, and the experience of the 2013 Obamacare funding fight has convinced them that Republicans can shut down the government and not pay any price for it on Election Day. They think this is a fight they can win, and they have several 2016 Republican contenders ready to defy McConnell and take up the cause.
The candidate most closely associated with the Planned Parenthood shutdown drive is shutdown enthusiast and frequent McConnell nemesis Ted Cruz. Cruz’s 2016 campaign strategy is built entirely around mobilizing conservatives and rebelling against the “Washington Cartel.” The Planned Parenthood fight checks both those boxes, and Cruz is already demanding that Republican leaders in Congress take immediate action. “An empty vote with no teeth on it will not suffice. Now is the time for Congress to act and actually end taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood,” the Texas senator said last week.
Cruz has some potent 2016 allies in this fight: current GOP front-runner Donald Trump and a surging Carly Fiorina, both of whom have called for the government to be shut down if Planned Parenthood’s funding isn’t eliminated. These three have the capacity to make life hell for McConnell and the rest of the Republican leadership by mobilizing conservatives and anti-establishment voters and accusing Republicans in Congress of betraying pro-life principles. And they will win the political argument no matter what McConnell and the rest of the leadership do.
If the leadership holds firm and avoids a shutdown, Cruz and his allies will claim that Washington Republicans have once again abandoned conservative voters and are out of touch with what the Republican base wants. If the leadership caves and tries to link Planned Parenthood’s funding to government appropriations, they’ll lose yet another showdown and Cruz and his allies will claim that they would have won a shutdown fight if only Republican leaders had shown some spine.
Either way, the government will be funded and Planned Parenthood will receive its money. The only question is how much political damage McConnell and the rest of the Republican leadership will choose to inflict on themselves before arriving at the endgame.