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Small victory for Planned Parenthood, but war over funding rages on

In this photo taken Aug. 6, 2015, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. McConnell is conceding that his party will have to await the next president before it can cut off federal funds that go to Planned Parenthood. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
In this photo taken Aug. 6, 2015, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. McConnell is conceding that his party will have to await the next president before it can cut off federal funds that go to Planned Parenthood. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
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The House Judiciary Committee announced its first hearing on Planned Parenthood Wednesday, a stark reminder that the debate over the embattled organization continues despite Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's acknowledgment this week that Republicans do not have enough votes to pass a bill defunding it.

The September 9 hearing will be the first in a series titled, "Planned Parenthood Exposed: Examining the Horrific Abortion Practices at the Nation's Largest Abortion Provider." Witnesses have not been announced.

Three other congressional committees have also launched investigations of Planned Parenthood in the wake of the release of undercover videos that anti-abortion activists claim prove the organization engages in illegal practices.

"Planned Parenthood and its executives must answer for the alleged atrocities brought to light in the videos by the Center for Medical Progress. For the past two months, the House Judiciary Committee has been investigating the alleged acts of Planned Parenthood and its affiliates, and now the American people will have a chance to understand just how horrific these practices are to the unborn," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Constitution and Civil Justice Subcommittee Chairman Trent Franks (R-AZ) said in a statement.

Planned Parenthood has repeatedly stated that the videos, nine of which have been released, are misleading, heavily-edited, and dishonest, insisting that the organization and its affiliates have broken no laws.

According to the Center for Medical Progress, which is facing lawsuits and potential investigations itself over deception involved with recording the videos, Planned Parenthood is illegally profiting from selling fetal tissue for medical research and changing abortion procedures to improve tissue collection.

Planned Parenthood has denied those allegations and released a report last week questioning whether even the "unedited" versions of the videos were actually edited and manipulated.

Based on those concerns, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) wrote a letter to Goodlatte and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) Thursday asking them to halt their "one-sided" investigations or to expand them to look at the potentially illegal behavior of the Center for Medical Progress too.

Despite uncertainty about what the videos truly show, many Republicans in Congress have already called for stripping away the federal funding provided to Planned Parenthood, which comes primarily through Medicaid reimbursements and grants. Planned Parenthood's latest annual report shows it received $528 million in state and federal funds last year.

By law, none of the federal money can go toward performing abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother.

A procedural vote on legislation to defund Planned Parenthood in the Senate failed last month after 46 senators voted against it, raising the prospect of another government shutdown if Republicans attach a defunding amendment to a bill that must be passed by October 1 to continue funding the government.

However, speaking to local Kentucky station WYMT Monday, Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) exhibited no interest in pursuing that showdown. He said he does not have the votes to pass such a measure, and even if he did, it would be vetoed by President Barack Obama.

"The president's made it very clear he's not going to sign any bill that includes defunding Planned Parenthood, so that's another issue that awaits a new president, hopefully with a different point of view about Planned Parenthood," McConnell said.

McConnell does still intend to hold another vote on the defunding bill in the fall, but anti-abortion activists and politicians were outraged by his apparent admission of defeat.

"There are no excuses left for the Senate Majority Leader. Sen. McConnell must lead on this issue and end taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood. If he refuses, he is complicit in murder," said David Bozell, president of ForAmerica, in a statement.

"Congress should pass a budget that defunds Planned Parenthood. Let it go to President Obama's desk, where he can weigh the option of forcing taxpayers to fund an organization that rips up preborn children and sells their body parts or do the right thing and cease funding Planned Parenthood," said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America.

"Senate leadership first told us we needed the majority before we could act on conservative principles. But now it appears that they are making yet another excuse for a failure to act on our promises," a spokesman for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) told the Associated Press.

"Sometimes I think the only people that the establishment wing of my party wants to fight are the conservatives," Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) said on Facebook.

McConnell's words do not mark the end of the battle, though, as Planned Parenthood acknowledged in a statement.

"The real question is can McConnell convince the rest of Congress to not hold the federal government hostage as a few politicians try to score cheap political points by cutting health care for millions," Vice President Dawn Laguens said. "From the beginning, this relentless campaign has been about one thing: anti-abortion extremists who will do anything lie, twist facts, villainize providers, and even reportedly break the law in their quest to ban abortion and block millions from accessing basic reproductive health care."

Even without McConnell's approval, Cruz or other senators could use the issue to delay passage of a continuing resolution to fund the government, much like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) did earlier this year when he briefly filibustered the renewal of the Patriot Act.

"Senators could still delay consideration of a continuing resolution regardless of what Majority Leader McConnell wants. Any senator could force Majority Leader McConnell to have to go through the process of breaking a filibuster on consideration and passage on the continuing resolution. The process could take a week or more," explained Mark Harkins, senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.

Some conservatives have also suggested pushing through defunding legislation using the reconciliation process, which requires only a majority of 51 votes. That bill would still have to go to President Obama, though, and he would veto it.

Even if the threat of a shutdown over federal funding may be off the table for the moment, Planned Parenthood is still engaged in war with its opponents on many fronts across the country.

"It's a big victory because it'll be one less hassle," said David S. Cohen, a professor at Drexel University, of McConnell's comments, but "I don't think they were ever scared of it actually happening."

Cohen said the greater danger for Planned Parenthood lies in the investigations and defunding efforts in progress in many states.

Planned Parenthood has pointed to several of those investigations being closed without evidence of wrongdoing, but that has not stopped Republican-led state legislatures from moving to defund the organization. Nor have warnings by the Department of Justice that withholding funding could be illegal.

Arnie Arnesen, a political commentator and radio host on the Pacifica Network based in New Hampshire, said the executive council in her state has rejected funding for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England even though the chapter does not engage in fetal tissue donation at all.

"This is a perfect example of why what they're doing is effective and works...It was about politics, not about facts," Arnesen said.

In Louisiana, where Governor Bobby Jindal ended the state's Medicaid contract with Planned Parenthood, the Department of Justice has sided with Planned Parenthood in a lawsuit, saying the state failed to provide justification for the decision.

"Governor Jindal's attacks on Planned Parenthood not only hurt women, they're against the law. Jindal may hope to score cheap political points by playing politics with women's health, but for the women and men of Louisiana, it comes at a price that's too high to pay," Planned Parenthood Vice President Laguens said in a statement.

A judge heard arguments in that case Wednesday but has not yet ruled. Cohen said the impact of other state actions against the organization may depend on whether Obama administration takes such aggressive action in those cases too.

A hearing was held in Wisconsin Wednesday where state legislators considered two bills that would reduce funding for Planned Parenthood there. Supporters of the bills argue that the money can be directed to other community health centers instead.

Those who want to defund Planned Parenthood on the federal level have made similar claims about giving the money to other health centers, but a recent study suggests flaws in that plan.

According to Sara Rosenbaum, a professor at George Washington University who has studied community health centers, the debate over Planned Parenthood has been "riddled with inaccuracies," and such claims are "a gross misrepresentation of what even the best community health centers in the country would be able to do."

Writing on the Health Affairs blog, Rosenbaum cited data that shows those centers do not have the resources or capacity to meet the needs of Planned Parenthood's patients. Health centers would be overwhelmed by the influx of demand for services, women would not get the contraceptive care they need, and more unplanned pregnancies and abortions would occur.

"Community health centers are not health care magicians," Rosenbaum wrote. "The health care system simply does not work that way."

As McConnell noted in his comments to WYMT, a new president could change the paradigm next fall, and most of the Republicans running for the White House in 2016, including Cruz and Jindal, have declared their intent to defund Planned Parenthood.

While that position may resonate with the conservative base, it remains an unpopular opinion with the general public, despite two months of Center for Medical Progress videos being shared all over the internet.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday shows 51% of voters oppose defunding Planned Parenthood, although 66% of Republicans support it.

"Campaigning against Planned Parenthood is not smart, no matter what your party, in a general election," Cohen said.

Republican candidate Mike Huckabee compared Planned Parenthood to terrorists in an interview with Newsmax TV Monday, saying, "Terrorists take people's heads off, that's what they do. Planned Parenthood takes the heads off of unborn children and sells the body parts."

Planned Parenthood did not respond to a request for comment on Huckabee's statement.

Cohen dismissed the upcoming congressional hearings as "political theater."

He questioned the Center for Medical Progress' strategy of releasing the videos slowly over the course of several months, giving Planned Parenthood ample time to "fill the void" with its own arguments between videos. He also said their claims have mostly just reinforced people's existing views about abortion on both sides of the issue.

"They certainly hyped these up to be something that they're not," he said of the purported evidence in the videos.

Each time a video is released, the same thing happens: people who oppose abortion become outraged and supporters of abortion rights dismiss them as edited and manipulated.

"I think that these videos have become no different from anything else in the world of abortion...I don't think they have resonated beyond the normal discourse over abortion," Cohen said.

According to Arnesen, the discussion about Planned Parenthood funding reflects a larger struggle over women's rights and freedom.

"It's always a proxy debate about abortion...This is about women and it's about control," she said.

According to Arnesen, Cruz, who is running a distinctly anti-establishment presidential campaign, is unlikely to find enough allies to put up a significant fight against McConnell on Capitol Hill because he is not well-liked by the party's leadership.

"Why give him anything that even smells like a victory?" she said.

"He's the wrong messenger if they want to actually push the defunding issue," she added.

The debate over Planned Parenthood funding shows no signs of abating. Fox News is planning a primetime special on the issue airing Friday titled, "Planned Parenthood: The Hidden Harvest."

The Center for Medical Progress has promised that at least a few more videos are coming, but what they actually show may be irrelevant at this point to politicians who have bought into the notion that Planned Parenthood sells baby body parts, whether it is true or not.

"This is not about their evidence. This is about capturing imaginations," Arnesen said, arguing that there were no relevant facts to justify rejecting funding in New Hampshire. In the long run, she is skeptical that such a strategy will succeed for Planned Parenthood's critics, though.

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"This is the first battle. The question is, will you win the war, and I suspect they won't."

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