WASHINGTON — In the rush to slash the federal budget, House Republicans have taken quick aim the nation's largest provider of abortions, reviving an emotional fight after a campaign season in which social issues were dormant.
A coalition of abortion foes joined with an undercover video activist on Thursday to call on lawmakers to cut all funding for Planned Parenthood, which they blasted as ""complicit"" in the trafficking of underage girls for prostitution. Planned Parenthood denies the allegations.
The attack came a day after House Republicans announced a spending proposal for the rest of the budget year that would eliminate funding for a 40-year-old family planning program. Planned Parenthood is the largest recipient of the so-called Title X funds, which pay for contraception and cancer screenings, but not abortions, to low-income patients.
The proposed spending cuts added momentum to an already burgeoning feud over abortion in Congress. Buoyed by the arrival of dozens of new anti-abortion Republicans, conservative lawmakers have introduced several bills that would further distance taxpayers from any connection to abortion.
Current policy already bars federal money in Medicaid and other government programs for abortion — except in cases of rape, incest or a danger to the life of the woman.
In response to the new push, Democrats and their allies accused Republicans of mounting an attack on women's health and veering far from their promise of a laser-like focus on economic issues.
""The new leadership ran on the agenda of jobs and the economy and what they're giving us instead is possibly the most extreme assault on reproductive rights in decades,"" said Donna Crane, policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice America. ""It's a classic bait and switch.""
Title X funding had not been targeted for a cut since 1995, Crane said, when the effort failed in a Republican-led House. Planned Parenthood said it receives $363 million a year in government grants and contracts at the state, local and federal level.
But the current climate, where calls for fiscal discipline rule the day, presents a new opportunity for anti-abortion Republicans who have long opposed federal funding to Planned Parenthood. Lawmakers said they plan to remain focused on cutting the budget while also moving forward on an issue of key importance to many in their base.
On Thursday, they noted their new allies in the House and the economic constraints were both working in their favor.
""This is when we're going to defund Planned Parenthood,"" said Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla. ""Now is the season for us to do this.""
Although the cuts may be embraced by the House, they are likely to find much more resistance in the Senate, where Democrats hold the majority.
The fight against Planned Parenthood gained steam from a series of videos recently released by a young anti-abortion activist. Some of the videos, shot undercover by the group Live Action, appear to show Planned Parenthood staff giving advice to people claiming to be engaged in sex work and seeking medical care for underage girls.
At a news conference on Capitol Hill, Live Action head Lila Rose, who has targeted Planned Parenthood clinics for several years with sting operations, said the videos showed the employees ""willing to aid and abet the human trafficking of teenage girls.""
One such video resulted in the firing of a Planned Parenthood employee in New Jersey. But in all other cases, the videos are ""heavily edited and manipulated,"" said Planned Parenthood spokesman Stuart Schear.
""The organization is not credible and their tapes cannot be trusted,"" he said.
The debate is not likely to die down quickly. Stearns, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight panel, said he planned to call Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to testify on the matter.
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., said he would introduce an amendment to cut all federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Pence also has introduced a bill to prohibit Title X funds from being awarded to any health provider that performs abortions.
Another bill, introduced by Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., would eliminate federal tax breaks for employers who offer health insurance if their plans cover abortion.