Analysis Law and Policy

Lawmakers Agree on HHS Spending Bill with No New Anti-Choice Restrictions (Updated)

Katelyn Burns

The lack of anti-choice provisions in the spending bill has left some of the most conservative members of the House disappointed.

UPDATE, September 28, 4:38 p.m.: President Trump on Friday signed a spending package that includes funding for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Congressional lawmakers on Thursday settled on a final minibus spending bill without the new anti-choice provisions Republicans inserted into the version passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in July. The negotiations were completed amid looming threats from Hurricane Florence and a potential government shutdown if Congress fails to pass a bill before the end of September.

Lawmakers from the House and Senate went to conference Thursday, agreeing upon a final version of the Defense-Labor-HHS minibus on which both full chambers can vote. In the conferencing process, members of each party from both chambers’ appropriations committees meet to reconcile the differences between Senate and House versions of bills, before a final vote is taken and a measure is sent to the president’s desk for a signature.

Democratic leadership managed to forge a deal that could be considered a win for reproductive health advocates, given the Trump administration’s steady push for anti-choice policies. “The conference agreement will provide ample resources for our armed services, robust funding lifesaving medical research at the National Institutes of Health, and support for vital health care initiatives like Title X family planning and teen pregnancy prevention,” said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), ranking member of House Appropriations Committee, in a statement. “I am also proud that House Democrats stood firm and succeeded in removing Republicans’ unnecessary and deeply partisan riders.”

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The details of the deal should come as welcome news for advocates who depend on Democrats to protect the right to choose. “We know from years of fights, including in the last year, [Democratic] leadership in both the House and Senate understand that it is unacceptable for anti-abortion policy riders to be in the final bill. That is not something that [Democrats] can compromise on,” said Rachel Easter, counsel for the National Women’s Law Center, in an interview before the bill was finalized.

The House version of the bill had proposed cutting all funding for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP), an initiative designed to lower teen pregnancy rates through sexual education. The final version allots $101 million for the program. But $35 million of that is devoted explicitly to “sexual risk avoidance” education, a euphemism for abstinence-only programs championed by Valerie Huber, a senior policy advisor for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health, which runs the office that administers the TPPP. The program has already survived a proposed cut by the Trump administration.

The lack of anti-choice provisions in the deal has left the House Freedom Caucus (HFC), which included some of the House’ most conservative members, disappointed. “No conservative riders,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), leader of the caucus, told Bloomberg Government. According to Meadows, the HFC has vowed not to vote for the bill. “It’s a Democrat Labor-HHS bill,” said Meadows.

Congressional appropriators from both parties have effectively boxed conservatives into a corner by combining funding for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) with defense spending popular among the GOP rank and file. “If they want to vote against Defense, that’s up to them,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), the lead negotiator on the deal, told Politico. He quoted Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), a fellow negotiator and member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We can have a deal, or we can have a fight, but we can’t have both.” The deal is expected to pass easily with plenty of support from moderate Republicans and Democrats.

President Trump’s initial budget proposal called for $68.4 billion in discretionary spending for HHS, a 21 percent cut from 2017’s funding levels. That stands in stark contrast to the $90.5 billion the bill now directs to HHS, $2.3 billion more than last year. Vetoing the bill would mean the Pentagon, as well as the rest of the government, would shut down shortly before the midterm elections.

The spending deal includes a short-term continuing resolution funding other agencies according to last year’s spending levels, keeping the government open until December 7. It also pushes back the expiration date for the Violence Against Women Act until after the midterms. An amendment in the original House version that would have prevented states from banning discrimination by adoption agencies against LGBTQ parents was also killed during conference negotiations.

The White House hasn’t indicated whether Trump will sign the bill and avoid a shutdown.

The next spending bill on the table is the Financial Services and General Government bill. The House version includes a ban on the District of Columbia using its own local Medicaid funds to finance abortion care, which local advocates say undermines reproductive choice and local government autonomy. “This ban once again shows how anti-abortion politicians in Congress are standing in the way of women making personal decisions about pregnancy—while also undermining democracy by denying D.C. the ability to ensure health coverage for its own residents,” said Destiny Lopez, co-director of All* Above All and the All* Above All Action Fund, in a statement to Rewire.News.

That bill also includes a ban on abortion coverage by multi-state Affordable Care Act insurance plans and a ban on abortion coverage in insurance coverage for federal employees.

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