WASHINGTON — Planned Parenthood, always a lightning rod for social conservatives, rose front and center in the divide between Senate Democrats and House Republicans over federal spending — and the disagreement came perilously close to shutting down the federal government.
While its more than 800 health centers generally provide a broad range of women's health care, it's the abortion services — a small portion of what they do — that have roiled conservatives again in a House-passed demand to stop Planned Parenthood from getting $300 million in federal grants.
Lawmakers reached a last-minute deal late Friday to drop the provision from budget negotiations. The issue exploded at the center of the budget dispute even though the debate has largely been about spending, and the abortion rider doesn't actually cut federal funding.
But for conservatives, it's the specter of federal money going to abortion providers that matters — even though federal funding for abortions has been prohibited since the 1970s and Planned Parenthood says it keeps the funding separate.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Group, who's a strong proponent of defunding Planned Parenthood, told reporters Friday that "money is fungible" and that "it's common sense" that federal funding frees up other monies and has the effect of supporting abortion services.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was blunt about the tactic.
"The Republicans want to make it harder for women to get the health services they need. And by the way, Title X does not include abortion. It's illegal to use federal funds for abortion services so anyone who says this debate is over abortion isn't being truthful," Reid said. Title X provides federal grants for family planning and health care services to low-income women.
But Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., countered, "You don't have to go to Planned Parenthood to get your cholesterol checked or your blood pressure checked."
Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said on CNN that "I think it's really important that the American people know there are no federal funds that pay for abortion either at Planned Parenthood or any hospital in America and 97 percent of Planned Parenthood services are basic preventive care — family planning, pap smears, breast exams."
Richards, whose mother, the late Ann Richards, a former Texas governor, was a women's rights' crusader, added: "It's simply incredible that we're talking about shutting down the federal government over the issue of whether Planned Parenthood can continue to serve 3 million women who come to our health centers every year for basic preventive care."
Outraged Democratic female senators — 12 strong led by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., — held a press conference to denounce the use of women's health as a bargaining chip. "We're not going to allow them to use women as pawns," said Murray. "We will stand strong and we believe strongly that women's healthcare should not be an issue in this debate."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said, "It's an opportunity for the right wing in the House to really sock it to women . . . very crafty on their part to take down the whole infrastructure."
Those pushing the cuts, such as Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., said the current fiscal crisis necessitates tough choices.
"This is not a personal attack on these programs, but the federal government can no longer be the never-ending piggybank for every program out there," Westmoreland said.
Anti-abortion advocates, however, expressed approval for the Planned Parenthood funding becoming an issue in the debate.
"This is a no-brainer," said Pat Carlson, who heads the conservative Texas Eagle Forum. "This isn't a government agency . . . We have to cut government somewhere and it seems to me like that's a very logical place."
The budget impasse reignited tensions over using federal money to fund programs designed to prevent unplanned pregnancies.
"It goes back to the ideological divide over a woman's choice," said E. Kathleen Adams, a professor of health policy and management at Emory University in Atlanta.
(David Lightman and William Douglas in Washington and Aman Batheja of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY