Planned Parenthood president grilled at House hearing

Story highlights

  • Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards testified before the House Oversight Committee
  • Undercover videos are at the center of a push to defund the organization

Washington (CNN)Republicans accused Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards on Tuesday of spending $40 million on "lavish" priorities during a heated and emotional congressional hearing on the embattled organization.

In more than four hours of questioning, House Republicans painted a picture of Richards and other Planned Parenthood leaders hosting pricey parties, flying first class and spending more time fundraising than focusing on women's health care.
    "The question before us is: Does this organization -- does Planned Parenthood really need a federal subsidy?" said House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. "Does it need federal dollars? Every time we spend a federal dollar, what we're doing is pulling money out of somebody's pocket and we're giving it to somebody else. What I don't like, what I don't want to tolerate, what I don't want to become numb to is wasting those taxpayer dollars."
    The hearing offered a chance for both parties to trade shots on Planned Parenthood, which is under fire after a series of edited videos surfaced this summer which purportedly show organization officials discussing the sale of fetal tissue. Some conservative Republicans are seizing on the issue to press Congress to defund Planned Parenthood as part of a broader spending package.
    Planned Parenthood gets roughly $450 million a year in federal funding, of which almost $400 million is reimbursement for services covered by Medicaid. Federal funds are prohibited by law from being used for abortion, and Planned Parenthood's federal funding covers services such as cancer screenings and birth control.
    At the hearing, Democratic supporters of Planned Parenthood accused their Republican colleagues of being misogynistic and more interested in political hits than an actual investigation. Richards argued the videos -- produced by conservative activists at the Center for Medical Progress -- are misleading.
    "The outrageous accusations leveled against Planned Parenthood based on heavily doctored videos are offensive and categorically untrue. I realize, though, that the facts have never gotten in the way of these campaigns to block women from health care they need and deserve," Richards told the committee.
    But the videos have become potent tools for conservatives looking to end federal support for the group.

    An emotional and fiery hearing

    Chaffetz opened the hearing with an emotional story of his mother and father dying from cancer. He choked up at times as he talked about losing them. He talked about his wife's work with a plastic surgeon who does reconstructive surgery for women with breast cancer. He then pivoted to his argument that the government should spend more on cancer screening and research while ending funding for Planned Parenthood.
    "This has absolutely nothing to do with providing health care to young women who need a breast exam," Chaffetz said.
    Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the panel's top Democrat, fired back, saying that most of the federal funding goes to services for poor women. He then countered with his own personal story, noting that his mother-in-law died from cancer last week.
    "I understand what you're talking about. I get it," Cummings said.
    Richards, in written testimony, called the videos "a deliberate and systematic effort by (CMP Director) David Daleiden and other opponents of safe and legal abortion to infiltrate our health centers, try to entrap our staff into potentially illegal conduct, and create discredited, doctored videos designed to smear Planned Parenthood."
    Following Richards' opening comments, Chaffetz opened a rapid-fire line of questioning, verbally running over Richards repeatedly as he painted a picture of one Planned Parenthood organization dedicated to political work and abortions, not health care.
    "My guess is you run the mothership here. When you show up and want to have something done, it's probably done," he said.
    At one point, Chaffetz denied a member's request that he yield.
    Richards struggled to answer as Chaffetz repeatedly said he had limited time and many questions. But when she did, she said their political work and health care operations were clearly -- and legally -- separated.
    As Chaffetz presented a slide that showed an increase in abortions, Richards said she was blindsided and had not seen the slide before. "It doesn't feel like we're trying to get to the truth here," she said.
    Chaffetz pressed Richards about her six-figure salary, asking why she should be earning close to $600,000. It was part of a larger argument he made that Planned Parenthood did not need federal dollars.
    House Oversight Republicans released a report Tuesday that detailed spending on parties, including $35 million for an office near Madison Square Garden in New York City.
    "Affiliates routinely host lavish parties. The funding used for one affiliate's 'Gathering of Goddesses and Gods' event or another's 'Chocolate Champagne' and 'Murder Mystery' fundraisers could have been used on health services," the report said.
    But Democrats rushed to Richards' defense, with some accusing Republicans of being anti-women.
    "My colleagues like to say this isn't a war on women. Look at how you've been treated as a witness," said Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat. "The disrespect, the misogyny rampant here today, tells us what is really going on."

    Shutdown fight looms over hearing

    The undercover videos have been at the center of the effort by conservative Republicans to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood, with some threatening to shut down the federal government if federal funding for the group isn't ceased. That effort failed in the Senate, but House lawmakers will decide Wednesday on whether to shut down the government as part of the vote on another continuing resolution.
    House Speaker John Boehner, who has denounced conservative hardliners since he announced his plan to resign last week, promised Sunday he would work with Democrats to keep the government open.
    Outside Washington, the debate over Planned Parenthood and its abortion services has been one of the dominant issues from the campaign trail to state capitols.
    Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert announced that he would no longer allow federal dollars to pass through the state to the group, spurring the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah to announce Monday that it was suing the state.
    Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster launched an investigation of Planned Parenthood in July, shortly after the first CMP video was released. But he said Monday that the probe "discovered no evidence whatsoever to suggest that Planned Parenthood's St. Louis facility is selling fetal tissue," according to Koster, a Democrat.

    2016ers weigh in

    The videos were repeatedly referenced during both Republican presidential debates in recent weeks, as several 2016 hopefuls have urged Congress to defund the organization.
    Democratic White House hopefuls took to Twitter to show their support for Planned Parenthood as part of a "pink out" campaign. Martin O'Malley was among those to "pink out" his Twitter profile photo. He also tweeted that Planned Parenthood provides "necessary medical care for millions each year."
    Bernie Sanders tweeted, "I #StandWithPP. These attacks come from those who simply don't believe women have a right to control their own bodies. I disagree. #PinkOut."
    But Republican and evangelical favorite Mike Huckabee fired off several tweets, saying what Planned Parenthood provided was far from health care.
    "#PlannedParenthood performs 327,000 abortions per year. Sorry, @CecileRichards this is NOT healthcare," he tweeted.
    He added, "Harvesting human organs to be sold like brake pads for a Buick is beyond barbaric, it's immoral, grotesque, & evil. #PlannedParenthood."