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Republican Infighting Over Abortion Almost Sends Spending Bill Off the Rails

Drama unfolded as senators neared passage of a $856.9 billion funding package

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., says fellow Republicans tried to block him on abortion. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., says fellow Republicans tried to block him on abortion. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Updated 5:47 p.m. | Not long after their plans were nearly derailed Thursday over a dispute about Planned Parenthood funding, Senate leaders got a final vote on a $856.9 billion funding package.

Earlier in the day, Sen. Rand Paul had fumed that his fellow Republicans were blocking a long-sought amendment to keep taxpayer dollars from going to abortion providers.

“The dirty little secret is the Republican leadership is blocking my amendment,” Paul said on the floor, accusing his GOP colleagues of paying “lip service” to curtailing abortion.

“What is more important to these Republicans? Saving lives or spending money?” he asked.

Even though there is already a longstanding prohibition on federal funding for abortion, abortion opponents such as Paul argue the money is fungible and shouldn’t go to any services provided by Planned Parenthood, period.

The drama unfolded as senators neared passage of a massive funding measure for the departments of Defense, Education, Health and Human Services and Labor. 

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell defused the Paul situation by allowing a vote on the amendment, which some Republicans had feared would pass and become a “poison pill” that would taint the final funding package. Three Democrats — Hawaii’s Brian Schatz and Mazie K. Hirono, and Washington’s Patty Murray — were absent from the chamber, meaning the way was unusually clear for an anti-abortion push.

If attached to the final measure, which was otherwise free of controversial provisions, such an amendment would almost certainly have put off Democrats for good.

But anxieties were eased Thursday afternoon when the abortion amendment ultimately tanked, with Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska joining with Democrats to vote against it, putting the final tally at 45-48, short of the 60 votes it needed for adoption.

The chamber went on to pass the massive spending package in the early evening.

That means the Senate has now debated the largest number of annual appropriations bills on the floor of that chamber since 2009. It’s also the fastest the chamber has completed action on spending bills since 1994.

The House has passed its version of the Defense bill but has yet to take up the Labor-HHS-Education measure approved last month by House Appropriations. How Congress will enact final versions of one or both of the bills has yet to be determined.

Niels Lesniewski and Andrew Clevenger contributed to this report.

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