WASHINGTON - Pope Francis' visit to Washington this week will consume the city's attention and interrupt normal congressional business for days, as an end-of-month deadline looms to fund the U.S. government and avert a partial shutdown.
Lawmakers, though, are busy pointing fingers as time runs short.
“Republicans are twiddling their thumbs as we careen closer and closer to a government shutdown,” accused Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer.
At issue is funding for Planned Parenthood, a federally funded women’s reproductive service provider. Earlier this year, undercover video was released in which Planned Parenthood officials discuss the sale of organs from aborted fetuses.
Although the video was heavily edited and Planned Parenthood says it broke no laws, the incident reenergized America’s decades-old debate over abortion and thrust the issue before Congress, the body that holds the nation’s purse strings.
"We should all agree that taxpayer dollars should not be used for harvesting baby parts for profit,” said Republican Congressman Tim Walberg moments before the House of Representatives voted Friday to fund all federal entities and enterprises except Planned Parenthood.
From military operations abroad to national parks at home, the U.S. government spends about $3.5 trillion a year, of which $500 million goes to Planned Parenthood. Under federal law, the organization is barred from using taxpayer funds for abortion services. Even so, it has long been a target of socially conservative Republicans who control both houses of Congress.
The House spending bill has little chance of passing in the Senate, and the White House has promised a veto of any legislation defunding Planned Parenthood. Even without the emotion laden issue of abortion, Republicans and Democrats have different funding priorities for the military and domestic initiatives.
Obama urges compromise
President Barack Obama is urging dialogue and compromise.
"Democrats are ready to sit down and negotiate with Republicans right now,” Obama said in his weekly address Saturday. “But it should be over legitimate issues like how much do we invest in education, job training, and infrastructure -- not unrelated ideological issues like Planned Parenthood. We need to set our sights higher than that."
Republicans are holding firm.
“When an organization dismembers and monetizes babies, we must all act,” said Republican House Speaker John Boehner in a statement.
"This is about the gruesome practices of an organization that receives $500 million a year from the federal government,” said Republican Congressman Phil Roe. “As legislators, we carry the responsibility and privilege to protect those who do not have a voice, and to ensure that tax dollars are supporting organizations that truly provide health care for women.”
Democrats note that Planned Parenthood does far more than perform abortions.
"Let's talk about the 400,000 Pap smears, the 500,000 breast exams, the 4.5 million STD (sexually transmitted disease) and HIV tests that Planned Parenthood does each year,” said Democratic Representative Lois Frankel. “That’s saving lives, and that’s the truth.”
A partisan standoff over funding of President Obama’s signature health care law in 2013 provoked a federal shutdown that lasted more than two weeks. Democrats are warning against a repeat.
“In 2013, we saw how badly a shutdown damaged our economy,” said Democratic Representative Cheri Bustos. “Twenty-four billion dollars in lost economic activity, 120,000 fewer private sector jobs created during that shutdown.”
'Matter of conscience'
Republicans say the issue is a matter of conscience that will define America going forward.
“Will we turn a blind eye to this callous disregard for human life?” asked Congressman Walberg. “Is this the country we want to be?”
At this point it is not clear any bill that the president would sign, even a short-term stop-gap funding measure, can pass both houses of Congress.
The federal government’s spending authority expires at midnight September 30. Although many federal activities would cease, civil servants and military personnel deemed essential would be required to report to work without pay. In past shutdowns, all federal employees were paid retroactively once the government reopened.