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Democrats promise Biden-era abortion showdown over Hyde Amendment

The decades-old measure, named after an Illinois GOP lawmaker, limits the use of federal funds.
Anti-abortion activists try to block the sign of an abortion rights activist during the 2018 March for Life in Washington on January 19, 2018.
Abortion rights opponents try to block the sign of an abortion rights supporter during the 2018 March for Life in Washington on Jan. 19, 2018.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — House Democrats have spent two years passing government funding legislation without picking a fight over abortion, but with President Donald Trump leaving office, party leaders say 2021 will be different.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who is set to chair the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said next year the House will eliminate the so-called Hyde Amendment, a decades-old policy that prohibits federal programs like Medicaid from paying for abortions.

“This is the last year,” DeLauro said at a Dec. 8 hearing about the adverse effects of the Hyde Amendment. “The time has come in this current moment to reckon with the norm, with the status quo.”

“The Hyde Amendment is a discriminatory policy,” she said, arguing that it puts politicians between a woman and her doctor and is particularly harmful to rural and low-income women.

But that is guaranteed to face Republican opposition, Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said.

“The Republican caucus would resist it,” Shelby told NBC News. “We've had the Hyde Amendment a long time. And I think it's pretty clearly embedded in the fabric of our legislation. I support the Hyde Amendment.”

The conflicting positions preview a clash over the polarizing issue of abortion next year when the government will have to be funded again.

The Hyde Amendment is named after its original sponsor, former Republican congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois. It is not a permanent statute and doesn't require repeal. It exists by being added every year since 1976 to essential legislation passed by Congress to fund the federal government.

President-elect Joe Biden endorsed the calls to scrap the policy during the Democratic primary, abandoning his past support for the measure when he was a senator.

“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,” then-candidate Biden said in June 2019.

But most Republican lawmakers oppose abortion rights and favor the Hyde restrictions. Even if they lose control of the Senate in the Georgia runoffs Jan. 5, they’ll retain filibuster power and be able to force a 60-vote threshold to pass a bill in the chamber.

If Biden uses his veto power to demand removal of the Hyde Amendment, it could enhance the Democrats’ leverage. But the president-elect’s recent focus has been on other matters and it’s not clear how much political capital he will spend on that goal.

Conservatives who support Hyde limitations argue that taxpayers who consider abortion to be immoral shouldn’t be asked to fund it. Progressives say abortion rights are linked to economic security for women, and contend that it’s a double standard to exclude abortion when tax dollars are frequently used to fund programs that some taxpayers object to.

Shelby said that progressives have “tried to remove it over the years and haven’t been successful,” signaling that the outcome would be the same if they tried in 2021.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., endorsed DeLauro’s push to do away with the Hyde Amendment next year.

“I myself have been an opponent of the Hyde Amendment long before I came to Congress, so I would be receptive to that happening,” she told reporters Dec. 10, calling the policy unfair to women. “It’s long overdue, getting rid of it, in my view.”