Ban On Abortion Funding Stays In House Bill As 2020 Democrats Promise Repeal

Jun 13, 2019
Originally published on June 13, 2019 2:09 pm

Updated at 10:05 a.m. ET

Democrats on the 2020 campaign trail are emphasizing their support for expanded abortion rights, but in Washington, House Democrats are preparing to retain a decades-long ban on most federal funding for abortions.

Presidential candidates including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris have denounced the funding restrictions under what is known as the Hyde Amendment. Harris has said it targets poor women who rely on federal health care benefits; Warren says she would "lead the fight to have it overturned"; and Biden now says that backing Hyde violates his belief that health care is a human right.

But these Democrats, along with most Democrats who served in Congress since the provision has been attached regularly to spending bills, have a history of voting for spending bills that include the Hyde Amendment.

The House is set to vote next week on a bill that would extend the prohibition for at least another year. That is creating extra tension for the more than one dozen Democrats who are splitting time between campaigning for their party's nomination and legislating in a politically divided Washington.

Origin of Hyde Amendment

Named for its author, Illinois Republican congressman Henry Hyde, the 1976 vote was a response to Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, which came three years earlier.

At the time, Democrats had a wide majority in the House. More than 100 Democrats voted for the amendment when it came up for a stand-alone vote, providing more than half of the support for the addition to that year's labor and health bill.

Since then, it has been baked into annual spending bills. This year, it is part of a broad package that funds the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Defense, Energy and State departments.

Democratic leaders blame divided government

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is one of many abortion-rights supporters in Congress who have resigned themselves to supporting spending bills that include the Hyde restrictions.

"I do not think it is good public policy, and I wish we never had a Hyde Amendment, but it is the law of the land right now," Pelosi told an audience this week at an event sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. "I don't see that there is an opportunity to get rid of it with the current occupant of the White House and some in the United States Senate."

The health portion of the House Democrats' first major spending bill is loaded with several major Democratic priorities, including more than $2 billion for Alzheimer's research and more than $3 billion to fight AIDS.

That's why leaders tamped down an effort by freshman Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley to strip the Hyde Amendment from this year's funding bill.

House Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., told reporters this week that she wishes the Hyde Amendment didn't exist. She explained that the party is now overwhelmingly in favor of abortion rights and most members would prefer to get rid of the amendment, but spending bills need bipartisan support to avoid another government shutdown.

"You know, we are where we are," Jayapal said. "People don't want to throw that into an appropriations bill that has to go to a Republican Senate and be signed by a Republican president."

The view from the campaign trail

Democrats in Congress acknowledge that presidential candidates have to take a stand. Biden was recently forced to come out against Hyde after abortion-rights supporters — and other Democratic candidates — attacked the former vice president for publicly backing the ban.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said a number of the candidates running for president are in the same position as Biden.

"I believe that every single candidate for president who served in either the House or the Senate — every single one of them — voted for an appropriations bill that contains the Hyde Amendment," Jeffries said at a press conference.

The list includes Harris, Biden, Warren and nearly a dozen other candidates.

But not all candidates accept that framing. In an interview this week with The NPR Politics Podcast, Harris said supporting spending bills isn't the same as supporting Hyde.

"Let's be clear, I've not voted for the Hyde Amendment," Harris said. "The Hyde Amendment is the law. And so it has been attached to other funding bills, and until we repeal it, which is what I am in favor of, it will be attached to federal government funding bills. That's the problem with the Hyde Amendment."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In this country, the House of Representatives is not ready to challenge a long-standing U.S. law on abortion. It's a ban more than 40 years old on most federal funding for abortions. Democrats running for president have denounced this ban, but the Democrats who control the House are preparing to pass a spending bill extending it. Here's NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Democrats running for president in 2020 are clear. Their party's nominee will defend abortion rights, including ending the 43-year-old ban on federal funding for abortions known as the Hyde Amendment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

ELIZABETH WARREN: I don't support the Hyde Amendment, and I will lead the fight to have it overturned.

KAMALA HARRIS: And the bottom line on the Hyde Amendment is that it is directly, in effect, targeting poor women.

JOE BIDEN: If I believe health care is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone's ZIP code.

SNELL: Those were presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden in recent weeks. But back in Washington, House Democrats say it's not that easy. The Hyde Amendment was first adopted in 1976 in a bipartisan vote by lawmakers who opposed using taxpayer money for abortions. Named for its author, Republican Congressman Henry Hyde, the ban was a response to Roe v. Wade, which was decided three years earlier.

Since then, it's been baked into spending bills that fund the Department of Health and Human Services. That bill includes major Democratic priorities, including more than $2 billion for Alzheimer's research and more than $3 billion to fight AIDS. And that is reality, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told an audience at an event in Washington this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY PELOSI: I don't think it's good public policy, and I wish we never had the Hyde Amendment. But that is the law of the land right now, and I don't see that there's an opportunity to get rid of it with the current occupant of the White House and some in the United States Senate.

SNELL: That is why leaders tamped down an effort by freshman Democrat Ayanna Pressley to strip the Hyde Amendment from this year's spending bill. House Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal says she wishes Hyde didn't exist. She says the party is now overwhelmingly in favor of abortion rights, but spending bills need bipartisan support to avoid another government shutdown.

PRAMILA JAYAPAL: You know, we are where we are. People don't want to throw that in into an appropriations bill that has to go to a Republican Senate and be signed by a Republican president.

SNELL: Democrats in Congress acknowledge that presidential candidates have to take a stand. Biden was recently forced to come out against Hyde after abortion rights supporters, including other Democrats, attacked the former vice president for publicly backing the ban. And House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries says a lot of candidates running for president have faced the same dilemma.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAKEEM JEFFRIES: I believe that every single candidate for president who served in either the House or the Senate - every single one of them voted for an appropriations bill that contains the Hyde Amendment.

SNELL: That includes Harris, Biden, Warren and nearly a dozen other candidates. In an interview this week with the NPR Politics Podcast, Harris rejected that characterization.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HARRIS: Let's be clear. I've not voted for the Hyde Amendment. The Hyde Amendment is the law, and so it has been attached to other funding bills. And until we repeal it, which is what I am in favor of, it will be attached to federal government funding bills. That's the problem with the Hyde Amendment.

SNELL: Sitting lawmakers like Harris will have to decide if they're willing to risk a shutdown fight over federal money for abortion when the spending bills come up for a vote later this year. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN ENO AND KARL HYDE SONG, "TO US ALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.