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Get Ready for Another Government Shutdown Battle

Ted Cruz wants to defund Planned Parenthood—and improve his position in the Republican race

NICHOLAS KAMM / Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner are hoping to show some semblance of control over their party as they stare down another threat of a government shutdown, this time over Planned Parenthood. Congress has only a few more working days left in September to pass a stopgap budget for the federal government before a partial shutdown on October 1, and there is sharp disagreement on how Republicans should handle it.

The shutdown fight this year began with familiar politicking on abortion, when an anti-abortion group selectively edited videos showing Planned Parenthood officials discuss fetal tissue in scientific research. And with the presidential race in full swing, Senator Ted Cruz is hoping to make enough noise to be heard over the din of Donald Trump: Cruz and others are insisting that the Senate should pass a budget that defunds Planned Parenthood in its entirety. In the House, Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina has 31 members in his shutdown caucus. Republicans have only bad choices if enough conservatives band together. They can either push a bill to defund Planned Parenthood that will die in the Senate, or they can pass a budget that compromises with Democrats to pass both chambers. 

It’s exactly the kind of fight that party leaders don't want.

McConnell called threats of a shutdown “an exercise in futility” on Friday in an interview with Politico. "It’s better to be honest with the American people and say, ‘That won’t get it done.’” Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, referencing the 16-day shutdown in 2013, said, "Having charged up the hill once and been shot down, why would you want to do that again?" On Fox News Sunday, Ohio Governor John Kasich said that "when you shut the government down, people don’t like it. And you shouldn’t shut it down unless you have a great chance of success.”

Planned Parenthood's Republican critics neglect to mention that less than half of its budget—$528 million of $1.3 billion budget—comes from taxpayers, and practically none of it goes to abortion-related services. Instead, the money supports reproductive health services, like contraception and screenings on STDs and cancer, which the group provides mostly to lower-income Americans. But that's not what concerns McConnell and company; it's that Democrats will benefit politically from a shutdown. In 2013, the work furloughs, shuttered federal programs, and closed national parks hurt the GOP's image and cost the economy $24 billion.  

Contra McConnell, the reason top Republicans don't want a shutdown has nothing to do with whether or not it's a futile exercise. After all, futile votes have never stopped Republicans before: The House has voted to repeal Obamacare more than 50 times. Instead, McConnell and Boehner are desperate to regain control the Republican caucus. If they have enough votes to pass a continuing resolution, they can claim to have won over—or at least tamed—the conservative wing. But that won't mean that conservatives will have learned any lessons this shutdown fight, not as long as budgets need passing and a certain senator needs attention.