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2020 Democrats Hate the Hyde Amendment. But They Vote for It Anyway.

“Let me be clear on the Hyde Amendment: I would repeal it tomorrow."

by Carter Sherman
Jun 14 2019, 7:10pm

The top contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination have made reversing a measure that blocks federal funding for abortion a top priority on the campaign trail. But Democrats back in Washington apparently haven’t gotten the message.

Despite the outcry, the Democrat-controlled House is set to pass a package of federal spending bills next week that still includes the rule, called the Hyde Amendment. The fight just isn’t a risk Democrats want to take, especially not when a potential government shutdown is on the line.

“Let me be clear on the Hyde Amendment: I would repeal it tomorrow,” Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark, the Democratic caucus vice chair, said in a press conference Tuesday, according to BuzzFeed News. But right now, she went on, “We felt that the Hyde Amendment was going to become a focal point that could collapse everything in the [spending] bill.”

The Hyde Amendment is not a permanent law but rather a rider on annual budgeting bills that must be regularly renewed. Named after former Illinois Republican Rep. Henry Hyde, it was first passed in 1976 and currently bans federal money from Medicaid and other government health insurance programs from being used for abortions, except in the cases of rape or incest, or if a pregnancy threatens a mother’s life.

Earlier this week, Reps. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Barbara Lee of California, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts introduced a provision to remove Hyde from the funding package. But on Tuesday night, the House Rules Committee ruled it was “out of order,” keeping it from even going to the floor for a vote.

That effectively spelled the end of the effort to repeal Hyde this year.

“I wish we never had a Hyde Amendment, but it is the law of the land right now, and I don't see that there is an opportunity to get rid of it with the current occupant of the White House and some in the United States Senate," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CNN.

Members of Congress don’t vote directly on Hyde; rather, they vote for the enormous package of spending bills that include Hyde. Democrats running for the White House have tried to capitalize on that technicality.

"Let's be clear, I've not voted for the Hyde Amendment," California Sen. Kamala Harris told NPR. "The Hyde Amendment is the law. And so it has been attached to other funding bills, and until we repeal it, which is what I am in favor of, it will be attached to federal government funding bills. That's the problem with the Hyde Amendment."

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has tried to make a similar argument.

But those statements might be a bit overly broad — given that every House or Senate member who’s running for president has voted for bills that included Hyde language, as New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries said in a press conference this week.

Now, four 2020 candidates — current Reps. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Tim Ryan of Ohio, and Eric Swalwell of California — may be forced to vote on it as early as next week, when the House is expected to vote on 2020 federal spending bills that will include Hyde, according to NPR. Senators will likely have to vote on the bills, and the Hyde language, later this year.

A longstanding fight

For decades, Hyde remained relatively uncontroversial, at least within the halls of Congress. Even Democrats who generally supported abortion rights didn't necessarily want to use taxpayer dollars to pay for it.

“If it’s not government’s business, then you have to accept the whole of that concept, which means you don’t proscribe your right to have an abortion and you don’t take your money to assist someone else to have an abortion,” then-Sen. Joe Biden told UPI in 1986.

But outcry against Hyde has swelled in recent years, thanks in part to the grassroots activism of reproductive justice advocates, who’ve railed against Hyde’s disproportionate effects on low-income women and women of color. In 2014, 75% of abortions took place among low-income people; 64% were among black or Latina women.

In 2016, with Hillary Clinton as the Democratic presidential nominee, the Democratic Party added repealing Hyde to its platform for the first time. Since then, Democrats' worries over abortion access have only deepened, thanks to Republican states’ successful efforts to pass laws that would ban abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy and take down Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

Now, the top candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are united in their support for repealing Hyde. Many of those candidates — like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris — have also backed a bill that would effectively repeal Hyde. (It’s unlikely to pass.)

Last Tuesday, Biden became the first Democratic candidate to say he supported Hyde. That sparked a fierce backlash from abortion rights advocates and Biden’s rivals for the presidency; when MSNBC’s Chris Hayes asked Warren if Biden’s position was wrong, she responded simply, “Yes.”

“Under the Hyde Amendment, under every one of these efforts to chip away or to push back or to get rid of Roe v. Wade, understand this: Women of means will still have access to abortions,” she explained.

Two days after declaring his support for the Hyde Amendment, Biden reversed his decades-long position on it.

“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,” Biden said, according to the New York Times.

Cover image: Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., waves after speaking during a campaign event at the Unity Freedom Presidential Forum Friday, May 31, 2019, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)