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House GOP Looks Outside for Advice on Planned Parenthood Panel

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, is questioned by Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, is questioned by Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

House Republicans insist their new committee to investigate Planned Parenthood won’t be political.  

But lawmakers and aides on both sides of the aisle are raising eyebrows at the optics of GOP leaders soliciting buy-in from outside groups as they make decisions about which members will sit on the special committee. The original plan was to convene a subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee to investigate the women’s health organization and abortion provider, which is under fire after secret film footage seemed to implicate Planned Parenthood officials with illegally selling fetal tissues, a charge the group denied.  

Under that initial framework, the select committee would have drawn from in-house resources, including mostly staff. And while membership on both sides of the aisle would still be subject to appointment by their respective party leaders, the pool would be restricted to those members already sitting on Energy and Commerce.  

Outside advocates and leaders in the anti-abortion community urged Republican leaders to expand the committee to lawmakers outside Energy and Commerce to include more stalwarts of their movement. GOP leadership agreed and has also listened to outside advice on exactly whom to appoint.  

Speaker John A. Boehner will make the appointments, but Tom McClusky, the vice president of government affairs for the March for Life Education and Action Fund, said he has also spoken with representatives from the offices of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who “welcomed” feedback.  

The majority party gets eight slots, one of which is the chairmanship. That position is highly likely to go to Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, the vice chairwoman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and leadership’s pick to deliver the announcement of the investigative panel’s establishment.  

Penny Nance, the president and CEO of Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee, said in a statement to CQ Roll Call she was satisfied with Blackburn as chairwoman. She also urged appointments for Republican Reps. Joe Pitts of Texas, Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey, Diane Black of Tennessee, Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, Vicki Hartzler of Missouri and Andy Harris of Maryland. (Nance said CWA was also enthusiastic about Reps. Mia Love of Utah, Martha Roby of Alabama, Ann Wagner of Missouri and Larry Bucshon of Indiana.)  

A source familiar with discussions over appointments to the new committee said he was pushing for the inclusion of Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio.  

Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony List — a group that’s also been discussing membership options with Republican leaders — said it was important the committee provide “a platform for women who speak to this issue.”  

But anti-abortion groups such as CWA, SBA List, March for Life and others are also trying to exercise their clout to keep off the select subcommittee certain members they feel don’t live up to specific ideological purity standards. A handful of lawmakers and aides told CQ Roll Call they were unsettled by what would appear to be inappropriate interference from activists.  

“I recognize the importance of pro-life groups weighing in,” said an aide to one Republican member who opposes abortion, “but it’s unwise to place their opinions and interests ahead of the members who were elected by constituents to fight these very issues themselves.”  

A specific target is Rep. Renee Ellmers. The North Carolina Republican helped get a bill pulled from the floor in January that would have allowed a woman to have an abortion after 20 weeks only in a case of rape, incest or danger to her life, and only if the woman reported the rape to the authorities first.  

Ellmers wasn’t the only Republican woman who found the language overly burdensome and fought to have it removed. But she led the charge, and the vote — scheduled to coincide with the annual March for Life — was postponed.  

“Her actions last January betrayed the trust of the pro-life movement,” Nance said in a statement.  

“Although her office has reached out to the pro-life coalition in an effort to mend fences, the wounds are still festering. While we appreciate her willingness to investigate Planned Parenthood, this is too important an issue to leave to anyone who could potentially distract from the overall mission of this Committee.”  

Douglas Johnson, the federal affairs director at the National Right to Life Committee, was less charitable: “To now reward her with a seat on the special panel would be inappropriate, to put it mildly.”  

Other sources familiar with discussions between Republican leaders and outside groups said advocates are also looking at some other purportedly anti-abortion rights GOP women with suspicion, particularly those who were allies of Ellmers back in January. And those offering input on the committee selection process reported they were hearing some reluctance from senior House Republicans about seating Smith, who is revered in the anti-abortion community but doesn’t always play with the team.  

Franks, in a Tuesday interview with CQ Roll Call, suggested he is serving as an informal liaison between leadership and outside groups. He said he was communicating to his colleagues in Congress what advocates were saying about certain members, though he hopes not to “deprive anyone of a fair consideration.”  

Franks said it was absolutely appropriate for House leadership to take advice from outside organizations, because they “are the ones who are truly committed to the cause.”  

The timing is particularly precarious considering Democrats’ renewed crusade against the Select Committee on Benghazi, which McCarthy recently credited with sinking the poll numbers of Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.  

“It is no surprise that House Republicans are working with outside, right-wing activists to make this committee as extreme as possible,” said Drew Hammill, spokesman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “It is reprehensible that taxpayer funds are being used again to create a political committee — this time to attack women’s health.”  

McClusky was quick to point out Democrats are likely to play the same game of strategically appointing their designated five members based on who will take the strongest position in favor of abortion rights.  

And in as clear a sign as any that GOP leadership isn’t concerned about backlash for taking advice from outside experts, Boehner’s office readily admits to the close communication regarding committee appointments.  

“Our staff regularly speaks with leaders in the pro-life community about the best, most effective way for Congress to investigate this issue and protect the unborn,” Boehner spokeswoman Emily Schillinger said.  

Boehner could announce the Republican members of the committee by week’s end.  

Matt Fuller and Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.

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