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Planned Parenthood funding creates key challenge for Senate GOP

The Senate Republicans' secret health care plan to strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood. For a pair of GOP moderates, that's a problem.
Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski

About a week ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Senate Republicans plan to "strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood ... and add several other abortion restrictions" to their still-secret health care bill. That may not sound especially surprising, given much of the GOP's fierce opposition to the group in recent years.

It does, however, create a challenge for Republican leaders, who have precious few votes to spare in this endeavor. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), for example, recently said, "It's not the only issue in this huge bill, but I certainly think it's not fair and it is a mistake to defund Planned Parenthood."

She's not the only one. Politico reported late Friday:

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has assured an Alaska constituent that she's committed to preserving Planned Parenthood funding as part of a health care bill -- the strongest line she's drawn yet over one of the most controversial elements of the Obamacare repeal effort."I am committed to ensuring that important provisions of the ACA, such as covering those with pre-existing conditions, continued support for Medicaid expansion, coverage for dependents and no lifetime limits, and funding for Planned Parenthood remain intact," Murkowski wrote in the constituent letter obtained by POLITICO.

Asked about the correspondence she signed, Murkowski reiterated to Politico that she still hasn't seen her party's secret bill, but added she's a "strong proponent [of Planned Parenthood] and I will fight to keep the funding in. I can't make promises or representations on bills that I don't know the contents of. I guess I'd have to see. But I have been solid on Planned Parenthood. It's all about access."

I wouldn't go so far as to call this language a threat to GOP leaders, but it certainly complicates the arithmetic for Senate Republicans.

If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his cohorts scrap the provision related to defunding Planned Parenthood, that'd make Murkowski and Collins happy, but it would risk alienating members further to the right. If McConnell decides he can lose Murkowski and Collins and still pass the bill, his margin for error shrinks to one: it'd create a 50-50 vote on the health care overhaul, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking the tie.

If even one other Republican -- say, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Nev.), who's raised concerns about the very idea of a system based on tax credits -- balks, at that point, McConnell would be short of the votes he needs.

There are some related questions surrounding this issue, including whether the Planned Parenthood issue would survive a challenge under the Byrd Rule, but Murkowski's concerns are a reminder of just how difficult a needle this is to thread.

Disclosure: As I've mentioned several dozen times, my wife works for Planned Parenthood, but she played no role in this piece, and she has no role in lobbying on federal legislation.