Yesterday the U.S. Senate took an important vote on legislation to defund Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest provider of abortions. Here is what you should know about that vote:
What was the legislation being voted on?
On July 28, 2015, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) introduced S.1881, a bill in the U.S. Senate to prohibit Federal funding of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The bill had 44 cosponsors, all Republicans. The vote was not on the bill itself but on a cloture motion that would allow the bill to proceed to a vote by the Senate.
In the Senate, senators have the right to speak as long as necessary on any issue. Because of this, any senator or group of senators can simply remain on the Senate floor and talk (about anything), thus blocking legislation from coming up for a vote. Strom Thurmond, the late senator from South Carolina, holds the record for the longest individual speech when he filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
Nowadays, Senators rarely even have to speak at all. They merely have to threaten to filibuster and the issue is tied up unless the Senate can invoke cloture. Cloture is a procedure by which the Senate can vote to place a time limit on consideration of a bill or other matter, and thereby overcome a filibuster. Under the cloture rule (Rule XXII), the Senate may limit consideration of a pending matter to 30 additional hours, but only by vote of three-fifths of the full Senate, normally 60 votes.
Because of filibusters and cloture, the Senate almost always needs 60 votes to pass controversial legislation. In the case of this defunding bill, failing to invoke cloture means the bill cannot move forward.
What was the outcome and who voted in favor of defunding Planned Parenthood?
The vote on the cloture motion was 53 against to 46 in favor (the Senate is comprised of 54 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and 2 independents who caucus with the Democrats). Only two Democrats—Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana—voted in favor. Sen. Kirk (R-Illinois) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) voted against. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) did not vote on the motion.
Why did Sen. McConnell vote against the motion?
Senator McConnell supported the legislation and even co-sponsored the bill. So why did he vote against it? Because under Senate procedure, when a cloture motion to proceed to the measure fails to pass with the required 60 votes, the Majority Leader may switch his ‘yes’ vote to ‘no,’ which allows him bring it up for reconsideration at a future time. As McConnell’s staff explained, “Leader McConnell would have voted in favor of the bill but in order to preserve his right to bring it up again, he simply changed his vote to ‘no.’”
What happens next for the measure?
The Democratic Party officially opposes any restrictions on either abortion or taxpayer funding of abortion. Because of this opposition, the senate will not be able to pass a stand-alone defunding bill as long as there are 40 senators who oppose pro-life legislation.
Some Republican senators plan to strip Planned Parenthood’s funding in the spending bill later this fall. Under the Constitution, Congress must pass laws to spend money. If Congress can’t agree on a spending bill the government does not have the legal authority to spend money. If Congress cannot agree on the terms of the spending bill it could lead to a partial government shutdown.
Some pro-life advocates believe the shutdown is an appropriate political response to the defunding issue. Others, however, worry that using this measure could backfire against pro-life interests. Government shutdowns are unpopular with the general public and typically lead to backlash against the advocacy groups and political parties that caused them. The concern is that the media will blame the pro-life movement for a shutdown and use it against pro-life politicians in the 2016 election.
Wouldn't a government shutdown be a worthy price to pay for defunding Planned Parenthood?
Even if the GOP forces a shutdown over the defunding issue, they will likely be forced to cave before President Obama does. In 2011, the Republicans threatened a similar shutdown over Planned Parenthood and Obama made it clear that he would not back down. The President is a staunch supporter of the abortion provider (the CEO of Planned Parenthood has visited the White House 39 times in the past six years) and will not allow the company to lose federal funding while he is in office.
The backlash against pro-life politicians, however, could reduce their number in the next election—a time when they are needed most.
Historically, the average age of retirement for Supreme Court justices is 78. By 2017, when the next president takes office, four justices (Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Bryer) will be over the age of 78. If there is pro-abortion president in the White House and 60 pro-abortion lawmakers in the Senate, then they will block the appointment of any justices who might vote against pro-abortion laws. The result is that a pro-life loss in the next election may mean the opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade will be lost for another two generations.