Murray: ‘Not on our watch’ will Republicans defund Planned Parenthood

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Meredith Shiner
·Political correspondent
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Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., resumes her role as key congressional advocate for Planned Parenthood as Republicans threaten a government shutdown over funds for the organization. (Photo: Susan Walsh/AP)

Congress is flirting yet again with a government shutdown — potentially making this the third year since 2011 when federal workers will have to worry about being furloughed and visitors may be locked out of national parks because of partisan intransigence.

Lawmakers have until Sept. 30 to figure out how to pass a spending bill to keep the government running. In 2013, nonessential functions of the federal government closed for 16 days because conservative Republicans — led by now presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — revolted against their leadership and refused to agree to any government spending legislation that included money for Obamacare.

Now, those same Republicans are threatening to shut down the government over federal funding for Planned Parenthood. And while many political observers are comparing the current situation to that dramatic 2013 fight, it actually has a more relevant precedent: the April 2011 shutdown battle, where Republicans nearly succeeded in shutting down the federal government over a demand to defund Planned Parenthood.

That year, Planned Parenthood’s top champion in Congress was Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington. While other Democrats debated signing away Planned Parenthood funding to avoid what they believed would be a catastrophic government shutdown, Murray galvanized other women in the Senate and told the leadership they would not stand for such a deal.

Four and a half years later, she’s gearing up for another bout with Republicans on women’s health issues, emboldened by the outcome of the 2011 fight and by Democrats’ subsequent campaign victories against Republicans who were deemed as anti-women because of their stands on family planning policies.

Murray spoke Friday with Yahoo News in an exclusive interview, lightly edited here for clarity and length, to discuss the years-long policy war to keep both Planned Parenthood funding intact and the government open.

Yahoo News: The idea of shutting down the government over Planned Parenthood funding is not new — it’s very retro 2011. You played such a huge role then in protecting those funds. Can you talk a little bit about that fight and what, if anything, has changed since then?

Patty Murray: Well in 2011, we were at the brink of having a government shutdown because we didn’t have a plan for moving forward. The government was about to shut down. We were within hours. Everything in the budget was decided except for one demand from House Republicans that we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood. And that was late at night — 11, 12 o’clock at night. And I said, “Absolutely not. We are not going to let women’s health care be taken hostage by this demand.” The women [senators went] to the Senate floor … and said, “Absolutely not on our watch.” They backed down. They relented and we kept the government running.

So yeah, I have been here before. And it is really disappointing that Republicans are again using the budget — the functioning of this country — and taking women hostage in order to get what they want. It didn’t work last time; it will not work this time.

And Republicans are using the Planned Parenthood videos as justification for waging this fight again, but obviously this is something that’s been an objective of theirs for several years now.

Oh a number of years. Absolutely. This is — when the Republicans took over back then, they told the country that they wanted to take over the House and the Senate and the government because they wanted to deal with the economy and the first thing they did was go after women’s health. This is a motivation that they’ve held onto forever and are again using it this time around and threatening to hold our country’s economy and the management of this country hostage to their goal of defunding Planned Parenthood and taking away a woman’s right to choose.

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Murray, a member of the Senate Democratic leadership, said Republicans should not attempt to leverage a government shutdown against funding for Planned Parenthood. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

That year you also were the head of the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, and the 2012 campaign ended up being largely shaped by women’s issues, especially in Senate races. What role do you see Congress playing in helping to bolster those political messages on women’s health for 2016?

I think it is at the Republicans’ peril to once again use our economy and our management of our country to take women’s health care hostage — women are not going to stand for that. Men are not going to stand for that. It didn’t work for them then. It won’t work for them this time. To the people who stand up in arms [against Planned Parenthood] — don’t use what we have to do in managing our country’s economy to go after women’s health. I mean, don’t go after women’s health [generally]. But [especially] don’t use our economy to do it.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., took to the floor immediately earlier this summer when Republicans started floating this idea of shutting down the government over Planned Parenthood to say that Democrats would not stand for such a tactic. Does his swift reaction this time around reflect how central women’s health issues are in Democratic politics?

It is — you know as Democrats we believe that people, that government should not be taking away women’s health care and their choice of how they’re going to do their own health care. This is their own personal decision. So it is absolutely something we feel strongly about and are willing to fight for and will continue to do so.

Is there any balance Democrats need to strike politically in crafting their Planned Parenthood messaging? In the 2014 election, for example, an almost singular focus on women’s health issues was cited as a key reason why one incumbent senator lost his seat.

This is not a tough fight we are picking this time. This is a fight that the Republicans are visibly picking and saying loud and clear that they are going to hold hostage our government’s budget and our economy until they get what they want in terms of defunding Planned Parenthood. And we have a responsibility and we will say, “Not on our watch” and we will fight back.

In 2013, after that extended shutdown, you and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., agreed to a two-year budget deal that set spending levels and avoided standoffs like the one Congress is facing now. Do you believe Congress needs to do that again in order to prevent us from having this conversation next year?

Rep. Ryan and I were successful in putting together a bipartisan agreement because we took off the table the divisive issues that both sides were using and said we need to be responsible and stand up and put together a budget agreement. That is what we did then and it’s what we need to do now.