House Republicans formally launch their latest effort to roll back abortion rights this week, and they're aiming squarely for the tax code.
On the docket already are two bills: One would make permanent the decades-old "Hyde amendment," which is currently added every year to federal spending bills and bars most federal abortion funding. The other bill seeks to close what abortion opponents say are "loopholes" in last year's health overhaul that could permit federal funds to flow for abortions.
But even before the first hearing on the measure, a group of Senate Democrats vowed that if either bill passed the GOP-stacked House, it wouldn't get through their chamber.
"We're not going to stand by and watch while reproductive rights are threatened and women's health is jeopardized again in this country," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "We are not going back in history."
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who has been leading the fight for abortion rights in Congress since she was a House member in the 1980s, said the bills do far more than their sponsors are alleging.
Not only would the bill that seeks to make permanent the Hyde amendment forbid public funding of abortion, she said, "it tells women they can't use their private money to purchase insurance that covers a full range of health care. It punishes women and businesses with a tax hike — a tax hike — if they wish to keep or buy insurance that covers the full range of reproductive health care."
That's because, for the first time, the measure seeks to eliminate some of the tax advantages that come with health insurance if that insurance also covers abortion — tax advantages like being able to buy insurance with pre-tax dollars.
That could affect millions of people because most private insurance covers abortion.
"It is overreaching — an intrusion of the most reprehensible kind," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
But House sponsors, with the strong backing of their leadership, are confident and pushing forward.
"The fact that it is designated as HR 3 speaks volumes the prioritization by Speaker (John) Boehner and Majority Leader (Eric) Cantor," said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. Smith is the key sponsor of the bill to write the Hyde language into permanent law. (House leaders give the first handful of bill numbers to measures they want to highlight as legislative priorities.)
"I think it says to the world that we are serious; it is time for a national debate on abortion that has never really occurred," Smith said.
Democrats in the Senate, however, said the public would rather Congress focus on other things.
"This election was about the economy," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. "So I do not understand how this Republican Congress can move from that mandate to create jobs — to create opportunity in this country — towards how do we undermine women's reproductive health."
UPDATE: The House GOP officially kicked off their abortion opposition campaign this afternoon:
"This legislation is really about whether the role of America's government is to continue to fund a practice that takes the lives of over one million little Americans every year," said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., chairman of the Judicicary subcommittee overseeing the bill to make the Hyde amendment permanent at a hearing today.
But going after the tax code could cause all kinds of confusion, testified George Washington University law professor Sara Rosenbaum. For example, she said, the IRS would have to make technical decisions about what types of abortions can and can't be covered so it can decide what kind of insurance is eligible for tax deductions and credits.
"We're going to need the Internal Revenue Service to define a rape; potentially a forcible rape, incest; potentially incest involving minors; as opposed to incest not involving minors; physical conditions endangering life, and physical conditions that don't endanger life," she said.
Stay tuned, there's a lot more debate to come.
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STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives has made restricting abortion one of its top priorities. That fight is decades old. But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, this year it's reaching into new territory: the tax code.
JULIE ROVNER: The House is formally starting work this week on two bills aimed at making sure no federal funds are used to pay for abortion. Arizona Republican Trent Franks chaired the House hearing on the first of the bills yesterday.
Congressman TRENT FRANKS (Republican, Arizona): This legislation is really about whether the role of America's government is to continue to fund a practice that takes the lives of over one million little Americans every year.
ROVNER: Now, you might think that federal law already bans the use of taxpayer funds for abortion, and you'd be correct. The so-called Hyde amendment bars federal abortion funding except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the woman. It's passed Congress in some form every year since 1976, as part of several different spending bills. But Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told the subcommittee, yesterday, that the Hyde language doesn't do quite enough.
Mr. RICHARD DOERFLINGER (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops): Gaps or loopholes have been discovered in this patchwork of provisions over the years, highlighting the need for permanent and consistent policies across the federal government.
ROVNER: So now that Republicans are back in charge of the House, they made writing the Hyde language into permanent law one of their top priorities. Except the bill they've introduced does more than just that. It would also limit the ability of individuals and some businesses to use tax credits or deductions for private health insurance policies that include coverage of abortion, which most policies do. Cathy Ruse, a lawyer with the Family Research Council, said the change is justified to protect taxpayers who oppose abortion.
Ms. CATHY RUSE (Lawyer, Family Research Council): As a general proposition, tax reduction is a form of government subsidy.
ROVNER: She means things like being able to deduct insurance premiums from your income taxes. But abortion-rights backers, like Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, say that by defining anything in the tax code as federal funding, Congress is stepping onto a very slippery slope.
Ms. CECILE RICHARDS (President, Planned Parenthood): There's all types of ways in which businesses, small business owners, others, benefit from the tax code - and that's never been considered, in the case of abortion care or other things, federal funding.
ROVNER: Meanwhile, Sara Rosenbaum, a law professor at George Washington University, told the subcommittee that the tax changes could create all sorts of operational problems. For example, she said, the IRS would have to make technical decisions about what types of abortions can and can't be covered so it can decide what kind of insurance is eligible for tax deductions and credits.
Professor SARA ROSENBAUM (Law, George Washington University): We're going to need the Internal Revenue Service to define a rape; potentially a forcible rape; incest; potentially incest involving minors as opposed to incest not involving minors; physical conditions endangering life, and physical conditions that don't endanger life.
ROVNER: She's referring to the fact that the bill as written would change the definition of rape from what's currently in the Hyde language. Doerflinger, of the Catholic conference, told the subcommittee there was a logical reason sponsors wanted to change the definition of rape to, quote, "forcible rape."
Mr. DOERFLINGER: The recent debate about forcible rape was simply an effort on the part of the sponsors to prevent the opening of a very broad loophole for federally funded abortions for any teenager.
ROVNER: In other words, no exceptions for statutory rape, when a minor has sex with an adult. Republicans, however, said they would take out the word forcible after a huge outcry, including a devastating satire from the comedians at "The Daily Show."
(Soundbite of "The Daily Show")
Ms. KRISTEN SCHAAL (Comedian): You'd be surprised how many drugged, underaged, or mentally handicapped young women have been gaming the system. Sorry ladies, the free abortion ride is over.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ROVNER: Today another House committee takes up the second bill, which sponsors say would close loopholes that leave the potential for federal abortion funding in last year's health overhaul law.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.