House Republicans tried to expand the anti-choice Hyde Amendment for the fourth time in 2015, this time with a last-minute change to a medical research bill.
HR 6, the 21st Century Cures Act, is a bipartisan effort to speed the development and delivery of new medical treatments and enhance funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
After the bill had already been extensively negotiated and unanimously passed out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week, anti-choice legislators quietly added to the bill language that would have applied the Hyde Amendment, which severely restricts federal funds for abortion care, to the allocations.
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), who worked on the Cures bill with Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) and is co-chair of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, said on the House floor that she was “disappointed” in the move.
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“I think it is unnecessary, and I think it distracts our attention from the important mission this bill brings,” DeGette said.
The House easily passed HR 6 on Friday, after rejecting an amendment by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) that would have stripped out the Hyde language.
The first time House Republicans tried to expand the Hyde Amendment this year was through a sweeping anti-choice bill that would have both made Hyde permanent and drastically limited private insurance coverage of abortion care.
That bill, an attempt to appease the right-wing base after Republicans canceled a vote on a 20-week abortion ban bill, went nowhere after the House passed it.
“When that didn’t work, when they couldn’t get [Hyde] everywhere, they started putting it into every bill that comes along,” Sharon Levin, director for federal reproductive health policies at the National Women’s Law Center, told Rewire.
This “Hyde and sneak” strategy, as pro-choice advocates call it, has been used in two other high-priority bipartisan bills this year—a human trafficking bill and a bill that addressed the long-standing “doc fix” problem in the Medicare sustainable growth rate (SGR).
In those bills, as in the 21st Century Cures bill, Hyde restrictions were added by reference—citing other places in the law where Hyde would apply, instead of explicitly writing new language into the bill that restricts abortion funding.
Pro-choice Democrats in Congress saw the original Hyde restriction in the human trafficking bill as a dangerous expansion worth putting up a bitter public fight for, but they seemed to think that the hard-won bipartisan compromises in the long-awaited Medicare and Cures bills weren’t worth torpedoing over restrictions that were both more temporary and more theoretical in their application.
While pro-choice Democrats say they aren’t happy about the addition to the Cures bill and would like to see it stripped out, most seem to think that it wouldn’t change much about the Hyde fight in practice. Democrats still lack the votes to get rid of Hyde, which still applies to programs like Medicaid that matter the most to women’s access to abortion care.
Some House Democrats are working to end the Hyde Amendment entirely so that this problem won’t come up again.
Along with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Lee and DeGette introduced a bill this week, the EACH Woman Act, that would both override Hyde and guarantee equal access to abortion insurance coverage for all women. The bill has no chance of passing the GOP-dominated House, but it represents a significant shift in Democratic messaging and strategy on the issue as new polling shows that a majority of Americans support public funding for women who can’t afford abortion care.
“The point here is that we have to get Hyde out,” a House Democratic aide told Rewire, adding that the Hyde language that ended up in the Cures bill is “more nimble” and less harmful than that in either the SGR bill or the original human trafficking bill.
“For example, if we have a great year in 2016 and we have the votes to suddenly overturn Hyde, then in subsequent years for that Cures funding, Hyde is gone,” the aide said. It’s also highly unlikely that research funds for the NIH and the FDA would have any practical effect on abortion access, the aide said.
But pro-choice advocates are most concerned about what will happen in the long term as Republicans continue to insert Hyde language into new parts of the law. Right now, Hyde is added every year to spending bills as a sort of tradition, but it could become even more deeply embedded and harder to extinguish if Republicans stay their current course of stealthily inserting Hyde into bills seen as essential to pass.
“They keep doing this over and over again, in order to embed the law wherever they can,” Levin said. “And each time it gets put in, it’s precedent that they can then look back to and say, ‘Well it was in here, why can’t we put it in there?’”