Vice President Mike Pence and a GOP senator recovering from surgery were dramatically summoned to the Senate Thursday to advance legislation that would allow states to block federal family-planning funds to Planned Parenthood.
After the vote had been held open for more than an hour, Pence cast the tie-breaker shortly after Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) walked onto the Senate floor to vote. Isakson, who is recovering from back surgery, was using a walker inside the chamber.
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Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, two GOP lawmakers who have long resisted efforts to bar federal funding for the women's health organization, voted with Democrats against advancing the measure. The GOP holds a 52-48 majority in the Senate.
"We're talking about federal family planning funds and I don't think that those funds should be subjected to state restrictions," Collins told POLITICO. "It's important to recognize that there is already a bar against using federal funds for abortion and that bar stays in effect. That's a prohibition that I personally support, but I'm a strong supporter of family planning funds."
Sen. Patty Murray said the move was "cruel, and it would have [the] greatest impact on women and families who need it the most." The Washington Democrat added, "It would undo a valuable effort by the Obama administration to ensure that health care providers are evaluated for federal funding based on their ability to provide the services in question, not on ideology."
Isakson will also be needed next week in the coming showdown over Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, but it's up in the air, as of now, whether the Georgia senator will be in Washington for the votes.
"He's been cleared to travel to D.C. for one day only," Isakson spokeswoman Amanda Maddox said. "He continues to work with his doctors on his long-term recovery and is eager to get back into his routine soon."
Reflecting the narrow GOP majority in the Senate, Pence has already had to break a tie once this year: the confirmation of Betsy DeVos for Education secretary. Collins and Murkowski were, again, the Republican defectors on that vote.
Thursday's procedural vote clears the way for the Senate to vote later in the day on a measure that rolls back an Obama-era regulation and allows states to restrict family planning grants to Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers.
Using the Congressional Review Act, the measure will repeal the final rule proposed by the Obama administration in late December that bans states from blocking Title X family planning grants to Planned Parenthood and other health care providers that offer abortion. Title X funding covers services such as contraception, STD screenings and treatments but cannot be used to pay for abortion services.
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Federal funding for abortion is already barred by the long-standing Hyde Amendment. Republicans argue that the measure upholds states' rights and is not an attack on Planned Parenthood.
"This is an opportunity to return to the people the right to prioritize how taxpayer dollars are spent," said Mallory Quigley, a spokeswoman for the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List. Collins and Murkowski are "missing out on the opportunity to stand up for comprehensive women's health care."
It marks the first legislation the Senate will vote on targeting Planned Parenthood funding with Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress and the White House.