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Budget battle lays bare American culture war

When the Tea Party stormed on to the U.S. political stage in 2009, leaders of the right-wing populist movement insisted their one and only goal was to restore fiscal sanity to the federal government.

Yes, they opposed Barack Obama's health-care reform law. But that was because it required bigger government. They contended they had no hidden agenda. Their mission was all about fiscal, not social, conservatism.

So how did a battle over a $3.6-trillion (U.S.) budget boil down to a fight over a meagre $75-million in funding for Planned Parenthood?

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A visitor to Washington on Friday could have been forgiven for thinking he had entered a time warp, reliving the days when the Moral Majority loomed over every legislative fight and abstinence programs were a cause célèbre on Capitol Hill.

The culture wars, long thought passé with the decline of the Christian right and changing social attitudes, were back in the spotlight.

Each time Democrats went before the cameras on Friday, they blamed the budget standoff that threatened to shut down the government at midnight on one issue: Republican attempts to slash funding for women's health initiatives.

With barely an hour to go before the deadline, an agreement was reached to pass a stop-gap measure that would fund the government for six more days.

That would give Congress until mid-week to pass an overall budget bill that cuts $39-billion in spending for the remaining six months of the fiscal year. Republicans also reportedly agreed hold a separate vote on their proposal to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, rather than include it in the budget bill.

Since 1976, Congress has banned the use of federal money to pay for abortions. It has funded Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions to low-income Americans, on the condition that the federal grants are used for other services. These include everything from family planning to mammograms.

A budget bill "policy rider" put forward by Indiana Congressman Mike Pence, however, would deny federal funding to any organization that provides or facilitates abortion. The proposal by Mr. Pence, a 10-year-veteran of the House of Representatives and leading member of the Tea Party caucus, was apparently embraced by House Speaker John Boehner.

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"The Tea Party is trying to sneak through its extreme social agenda - issues that have nothing to do with funding the government," Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid complained. "They are willing to throw women under the bus, even if it means they shut down the government."

Mr. Boehner insisted otherwise. He said Republican and Democratic negotiators had resolved most of their differences over the policy riders. The impasse, he contended, was due instead to Democrats' unwillingness to agree to spending cuts closer to the $61-billion the GOP was seeking.

"It is awfully hard to know what the real sources of the conflict are. All we can observe is how each side characterizes the nature of these negotiations," University of Chicago political science professor William Howell noted in an interview.

There has been plenty of posturing on both sides, of course, as each party seeks to depict the showdown in a way it believes works most to its advantage. For Republicans, that means keeping the focus on the deficit.

Democrats are vulnerable on the deficit, since their core base of voters wants to see more spending, not less. They have tried to shift the attention to social concerns such as women's health, an issue that has resonance not just with the Democratic base, but with female voters in general.

"They are gearing up for the 2012 elections," Prof. Howell said. "Democrats are pushing the claim that Republicans are extremists, that their leaders are held hostage to the extreme segments of their party."

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Democrats have already seized on the debate over Planned Parenthood to launch an appeal for campaign donations.

"Contribute $3 or more right now so we can get hard-hitting ads up to hold Tea Party extremists in Congress accountable for their radical assault on women's health care and reproductive freedom," Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette wrote in a letter to potential donors.

Still, it is Republicans like Mr. Pence and his strident anti-abortion colleagues who invited this controversy. It could have been avoided had the Tea Party stayed true to its fiscal mission. This suggests social conservatives really are a resurgent force in the Republican Party.

If the culture wars are back, Republicans are just as complicit.

The Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group that typically backs Republican candidates, took out ads in three Capitol Hill newspapers on Thursday calling on Congress to "privatize" Planned Parenthood.

"It has everything to do with an effort to revive the culture wars, to return to the bedroom politics of the old Religious Right," Boston University religious scholar Stephen Prothero wrote on

Some critics on the left also accuse Republicans of wanting to defund Planned Parenthood because African-Americans and other minority women rely disproportionately on its services. The charge is reminiscent of those levelled against the GOP during debates over welfare cuts in the 1990s.

Culture wars or not, this is American politics at its ugliest.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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