Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei, both Republicans, broke with their party Monday during a raucous town hall on their constituents’ home turf, pledging support for Planned Parenthood and access to so-called women’s health care. But their recent votes, or lack thereof, in the U.S. Congress tell a different story.
“I support funding for women’s health care, with Planned Parenthood being one of the outlets,” Amodei said to rare, protracted applause from the crowd of around 600 people in the Reno-Sparks Convention Center. About another 300 couldn’t get inside, a Planned Parenthood Action Fund organizer told Rewire.
“Not the exclusive one, but one of the outlets,” Amodei said.
Amodei’s remarks came in response to constituent Meghan Simons’ question about federal Title X funding for family planning clinics, including Planned Parenthood affiliates. But Amodei was absent from a nearly party-line February 16 roll-call vote that kickstarted the GOP’s push to dismantle Obama-era family planning protections.
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Rewire reached out to Amodei’s Washington, D.C., office for clarification regarding why he missed the vote and where he stands on state interference in Title X funding and congressional GOP-led “defunding” efforts. Spokesperson Logan Ramsey told Rewire that Amodei had to miss the last votes on Capitol Hill that day to meet with constituents in Reno that evening. Ramsey in an email said she would follow up with Amodei about his statements from the town hall.
A public statement of unequivocal support for Planned Parenthood is exceedingly rare among congressional Republicans, particularly those in the House of Representatives who most recently sought to “defund” it by stripping it of Medicaid reimbursements—by far the largest portion of its federal funding—in their failed Obamacare repeal bill. A highly partisan, $1.59 million “witch hunt” targeting Planned Parenthood and other congressional inquiries based on an anti-choice smear campaign turned up no credible evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the health-care organization.
Heller, who voted with Senate Republicans last month to send the Title X measure to President Trump’s desk, initially seemed content to let Amodei, and only Amodei, do the talking on the issue.
“Senator Heller?” Simons, a 33-year-old Reno resident who identified herself as “simply a constituent of yours—not paid to be here,” prompted from her podium toward the middle of the room.
Heller started off by saying that he wanted his daughters to have “the same opportunities and same access” to health care but that it “isn’t just [accessible at] Planned Parenthood.” He pivoted to community health centers―Republicans’ favorite alternative to Planned Parenthood clinics, even though they can’t actually make up the gap in care.
The crowd started booing Heller, who latched on to Amodei. ”I agree with Mark, I agree with Mark,” Heller said, gesturing to his counterpart.
Then, Heller made what at first appeared to be his own public statement of unequivocal support.
“I have no problems with federal funding for Planned Parenthood,” he said, garnering an echo of Amodei’s applause.
But when Simons pressed Heller to commit to protecting that funding at the federal level, rather than just supporting it, the senator retreated. He made one contradictory statement after another.
“We’ll continue to look at this issue.”
“I will protect Planned Parenthood, I will protect Planned Parenthood.”
“Should federal funding cover some of the activities that occur?” A moment later: “We don’t want federal funding to Planned Parenthood to be used for―”
“It’s not!” a member of the audience screamed, drowning out Heller’s supposed concern about federal funding for abortion care, long prohibited under the discriminatory Hyde Amendment.
Ultimately, Heller said, “the states have the right to make the determination”―the trend President Obama sought to reverse after years of GOP-majority state legislatures defunding family planning services, a move that disproportionately affects 4 million people with low incomes and people of color.
For Simons, Heller’s answers did not square with the Planned Parenthood she knows from her lived experiences, which included seeking contraception in an earlier, abusive marriage.
“Amodei had no problem saying that he supported funding the organization. I wish he would have elaborated a little bit more, because it does leave him some wiggle room later on,” Simons told Rewire after the town hall.
“However, I was really interested in what Heller had to say, and I noticed that I had to ask him several times, ‘Would you commit to protect the funding?’ And he finally said that he would, but then it was almost like he realized what he said and immediately qualified it.”