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A GOP strategist thinks Republicans would win a shutdown fight over Planned Parenthood

Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

The recent movement to defund Planned Parenthood is creating a divide among House Republicans.

On one side are the most conservative members, who think the caucus ought to vote down any budget that provides money to Planned Parenthood — even if that forces a government shutdown.

But more moderate Republican leaders disagree and worry about possible blowback for forcing a disruptive, high-profile government shutdown over a small slice of the federal budget. Politico reported that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told members yesterday that he thinks "shutting down the government over Planned Parenthood could damage the cause of lawmakers who oppose abortion."

Heritage Action falls into the former camp: The conservative group has urged House members to pledge to vote against any bill that provides money to Planned Parenthood. Its communications director, Dan Holler, argues that a high-profile fight would ultimately play in the Republicans' favor. Legislators who support Planned Parenthood would have to spend much more time defending the group and talking about the series of sting videos shot by anti-abortion activists that ricocheted across the internet this summer. The videos argue that Planned Parenthood has profited from procuring fetal tissue for researchers.

"If Democrats have to defend the actions of Planned Parenthood, when a news show is showing a split screen with the video and asking for comment, at some point the pressure becomes too much to bear," Holler says.

Holler and I spoke Thursday morning about why he thinks now is the right time for a Planned Parenthood fight, and the politics of a government shutdown over the issue. What follows is a transcript of our discussion, lightly edited for clarity.

Sarah Kliff: Your group, Heritage Action, has pushed strongly for the defunding of Planned Parenthood. Now House Speaker John Boehner is saying that now isn't the right time — it could force a government shutdown, which he says would be bad for the pro-life cause. What do you think of Boehner's remarks?

Dan Holler: It's really interesting to hear folks make the argument that pushing Planned Parenthood into the nightly news cycle will hurt the pro-life movement. One of the things that the speaker or other leaders will say is that we're sympathetic but it's not time to act, not enough Americans have seen the videos, that we have to have more investigations and we have to educate the American people.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a better way to educate the public than having a big legislative fight. Most Americans are not going to stumble across the videos online. The nightly news isn't going to cover them unprompted. If the videos are truly a groundbreaking moment for the pro-life movement, the best way to get people aware of them is to have a major conflict.

SK: Even if that forces a government shutdown?

DH: There's always a risk the legislative branch and executive branch won't see eye to eye on something. The way that Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell seem inclined to handle the risk of disagreement is to say, "President Obama says no, so we can't do it."

These conflicts rarely air out, because there's not a willingness to go in and fight. If they promise to win the fight later, when they get around to it, there's a lot of reason to be skeptical they'll actually get around to it.

SK: So let's say Republicans do dig in their heels and stand strong on defunding Planned Parenthood. It's still really hard for me to see President Obama acquiescing and signing a budget that cuts out the group. He's been such a staunch defender of the group. How do you see that playing out?

DH: I think it's untenable for people to become aware of what Planned Parenthood does, to have to see these videos on the nightly news, and to have congressional Democrats have to say that these practices are acceptable or these practices aren't worth talking about.

If Republicans are united in forcing them to do that, it would make a huge difference. That requires some Republican Party unity and unity within the pro-life movement. That hasn't happened yet. But if it did, there's a path to victory. What the president and Harry Reid are counting on — and something they have good reason to suspect — is Republicans will cave.

SK: Is it possible the fallout from a fight over Planned Parenthood's funding cuts the other way — that it creates blowback for Republicans about why the government might shut down or has shut down?

DH: I think if it's done correctly, and the Republican Party gets into a situation where they're willing to explain what they're fighting for, they'll be able to say they're fighting for the little baby boy who has had his brain removed. That's pretty compelling. It would take a lot of willingness to do that, and you're not seeing that willingness yet. They're not willing to fight in a way that allows them to win.

SK: You said this could work if Republicans handle the fight "correctly." What does that look like in your mind?

DH: Broadly speaking, the right way is to elevate what Planned Parenthood has done and put Democrats in position of defending that — make it clear they’re voting to defend these practices. That is, when you make it about actual actions of Planned Parenthood, that becomes a very winnable fight.