Muted abortion response speaks volumes about budget talks

As the clock ticked down toward a federal government shutdown, signs surfaced on Friday that a deal would be struck before the midnight deadline.

One telling indication was the fact that Democrats, out there aggressively defending funding for community health clinics and Title X funding, were met by mostly Republican silence.

They appeared ready to back an agreement that didn't include the controversial rider concerning funding for Planned Parenthood. This might well be the face-saving concession Democrats win from Republicans as they acquiesce to $38 billion in cuts from the fiscal 2011 budget.

The Democratic broadsides began early in the day. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Republicans "are willing to throw women under the bus, even if it means they'll shut down the government."

GOP leaders said nothing.

When Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Democrats "will not let women be used as pawns in this debate," Republicans, with one exception, remained mute. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., did say women "don't have to go to Planned Parenthood to get your cholesterol or blood pressure checked. If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood."

But Kyl followed up, saying, "I urge my colleagues, instead of throwing rotten apples at each other here and trying to preach a doom-and-gloom game, let's focus on what this country can do in a positive and constructive way."

Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. -- never one to shy away from countering a Reid attack -- was the portrait of equanimity, urging senators to lay low as it would like take "a few more hours to work this out."

Sitting politely silent or having one lone senator urge a more positive debate after sustained Democratic attacks is hardly what one would expect from people worried about a protracted debate over women's health issues. The Republican reaction, or lack thereof, suggested a shrugging acceptance of one more round of talking points before the final brokering.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told his members that a final deal continued to elude negotiators, but he remained hopeful that one could be reached before midnight. "Stay tuned. Keep the faith," Boehner said, according to a lawmaker in the room who asked not to be identified because conference meetings are private.

The lawmaker said Boehner reiterated that the hold-up is spending cuts, not policy riders, contrary Reid's statement earlier that the dollar figures were agreed to with just the abortion question outstanding. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., explicitly asked if the holdup was "women's rights" and Boehner said it was not. Indeed, he said that "all the policies issues have been dealt with." Boehner said the general understanding is the cuts will be in the orbit of $38 billion, but that he has not personally committed to that figure.

Later, appearing before cameras, Boehner said, "We are not going to roll over and sell out the American people like it has been done time and time again in Washington. When we say we're serious about cutting spending, we're damn serious about it."

He also said that "almost all" of the social questions had been settled.

For Boehner, who has always defined this first budget skirmish (there will be plenty more) in terms of cutting spending, not achieving broad policy goals, the size of agreed-upon cuts trumps all. If Democrats need protection of Title X funding and the hot-button Planned Parenthood allotments to extract a face-saving victory and Boehner needs more spending cuts to mollify conservatives who lose on key policy grounds, the contours of a deal are apparent -- if as yet unrealized.

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