House Republicans were skeptical when their No. 3 leader started talking back in September about using the budget reconciliation process to defund Planned Parenthood, knowing full well it would be vetoed by President Barack Obama. Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., though, still counts it as one of the GOP's biggest victories of the 114th Congress.
Ever since the GOP captured the majority in the Senate, Republican lawmakers had been holding out on using the Senate filibuster-proof process until there was a solid plan of attack to dismantle elements of the Affordable Care Act.
The Planned Parenthood elements muddled that strategy a bit; many Republicans wanted to use the appropriations process to address Planned Parenthood, even though that raised the specter of a government shutdown.
“Initially there was some resistance,” Scalise recalled in an interview in his Capitol office before Congress left town. “Some people said, ‘Just focus on Obamacare.’ … Some people said, ‘Well, is it distracting, or is it taking away, or is it making it more complicated to get it to the president’s desk?’
“My feeling was … ‘You only have one opportunity to send a bill to the president’s desk with 51 votes and it’s this reconciliation tool,’” Scalise continued. “‘Why not use it in as robust a way as possible to advance as much of the conservative values as we have?’”
Nearly four months later, after stops and starts and some uncertainty, the House is poised in early January to pass the measure and send it to the White House. President Barack Obama will, of course, decline to sign it.
That's beside the point, though, according to Scalise. “In a Republican House and Senate you can get a bill to the president’s desk that guts Obamacare and defunds Planned Parenthood and the only ingredient missing to sign that into law is a Republican president. I think that’s a crystallizing message. It’s something that shows people just what’s at stake in this presidential election.”
The strategy also kept the GOP priority from getting embroiled in the year-end appropriations endgame, with its risk of a government shutdown. Scalise said that wasn't about deflecting a fight, but “It’s actually about winning a fight and advancing your causes."
Still, it wasn't an easy sell.
“It took time to build the coalition and get everybody to buy in,” Scalise said. “They wanted to see what the strategy was, as they should. I think a lot of members wanted to see if there was some kind of endgame, and clearly this was a goal of ours to get as much conservative policies on this reconciliation bill as possible.
“And then there were people at the time saying, ‘Well, the Senate won’t be able to hold all of that, you know, clearly there won’t be the 50 votes to keep the defunding of Planned Parenthood in there,’” Scalise continued. “Well, we proved them all wrong. The Senate had a very strong vote. They had 52 members that said ‘not only do we want to gut Obamacare but we want to defund Planned Parenthood.’ And we got the whole conservative movement to agree that this is the right way to go.”
Actually, it wasn’t such smooth sailing in the Senate. Almost immediately it became clear the House-passed reconciliation bill was written in a way that ran afoul of Senate rules.
Figuring out how to address that challenge was compounded by the task of cobbling together the necessary votes. A handful of Senators opposed the measure because of the Planned Parenthood language, as many Republicans had feared.
“I talked to a few of them,” Scalise said of his interactions with Senate Republicans. “I reached out to John Cornyn [R-Texas], he’s the whip in the Senate, so we talk about a lot of different things; we have a good relationship and a really good line of communication so I wanted to make sure he knew this was our strategy.”
Meanwhile, GOP Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida said they wouldn’t vote for the bill unless it did more to target the Affordable Care Act.
The Senate ultimately passed a reconfigured bill that passed muster with the parliamentarian. That measure is the one awaiting House action when the chamber reconvenes in January.
“We worked very closely with the Senate every step of the way … You can break privilege by putting things in the bill that don’t conform with the Senate rules. This isn’t the House rules we’re dealing with,” said Scalise, brushing aside criticism from conservatives of how the House bill was written. “You need to make sure it’s drafted in a narrow way, and we wanted to be smart about it so we didn’t overstep their ability to get that bill to the floor with 51 votes.”
He said he even spoke to Lee and provided assurances that if the Senate was able to pass a reconciliation bill that knocked down more provisions of the health law, the House was prepared to pass it with those same changes.
“And,” he said, “it ended up being the best bill possible.”
Which, in this case and after it is vetoed, will serve as a political message rather than something that changes policy.