WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans, aided by Vice President Mike Pence and an ailing Georgia colleague who hobbled into the Senate chamber on a walker, voted Thursday to proceed with a measure to undo an Obama administration rule preventing states from blocking funding for family planning clinics that also provide abortions.
The vote was one of a string of showdowns to reverse Obama-era regulations, but this one unfolded with all the drama of numerous past conflicts over abortion funding — with Pence casting the deciding vote in his role as president of the Senate.
Taking money away from Planned Parenthood has been a longstanding goal of congressional Republicans, but each effort has been blocked by Democrats and President Barack Obama.
Even full control of Washington by Republicans has not made the process easy.
The vote set up the measure for a final vote later Thursday. The measure would return the power to the states to single out abortion providers from receiving Title X money set aside for family planning and related preventive health services for women. Democrats all voted against the bill, as did two Republicans, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
The vote remained open for more than an hour, as aides scrambled to find Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who has been away after two back operations, and to summon the vice president. Isakson, who had been cleared by doctors to travel for a single day, came slowly into the chamber on his walker, flanked by Senate pages, to turn his thumb to the sky with an “aye,” making the vote a tie.
Pence swept into the chamber to break the tie, something that is usually reserved for significant policy measures that are short 60 votes. This measure falls under an obscure, and until recently, rarely used act that allows a new Congress to undo actions of the old Congress during the first few months of the year.
A handful of Democrats stood on the floor taking in the scene.
“This vote was won by a tie vote, and the vice president” was the tiebreaking vote, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
“It will take one Republican this afternoon on the final vote to say yes for the women in their state,” Murray said. “That’s all we’re asking. For the women of this country.”
The entire exercise seemed likely to be repeated for final passage of the measure later Thursday, after several hours of scheduled debate.
If passed later, the measure would head to the desk of President Donald Trump, a onetime supporter of Planned Parenthood who adopted an anti-abortion rights position during the campaign.
Planned Parenthood is the central target of the measure. A similar fight could occur next month when Congress moves to pass a measure to finance the government for the rest of the year. Collins and Murkowski have resisted these moves, saying that family planning clinics provide essential care for women.
“Mike Pence went from yesterday’s forum on empowering women to today leading a group of male politicians in a vote to take away access to birth control and cancer screenings,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “People are sick and tired of politicians making it even harder for them to access health care, and they will not stand for it.”