WASHINGTON -- With a midnight deadline looming for a potential government closure, Sen. John Ensign of Nevada urged fellow Republicans Friday to back down on a key demand if that is what it takes to seal a budget deal and avoid a shutdown.
Ensign in a Senate speech said Congress has much larger budget problems to tackle beyond the 2011 spending bill that has tied lawmakers and White House in knots. Leaders need to "get this behind us" to focus on bigger issues that threaten the nation's economic health, he said.
The dispute that threatens to shut down portions of the federal government involves only "a few billion dollars compared to trillions of dollars" being charged to the nation's credit card and forcing the government deeper into unsustainable debt, Ensign said.
"It is really a drop in the bucket," Ensign said of the current dispute. "That's why I believe it is really important for both sides to get this behind us so we can focus on the much larger issues.
"You know, people can blame whichever party they want. But the reality is now we have a $13 trillion national debt."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Friday that Democrats and House Republican leaders are at an impasse over a GOP demand to end federal funding for women's health and family planning, including Planned Parenthood.
Planned Parenthood is a major provider of health care for women, including abortions, although none of its federal funding can be used for that purpose by law. Conservatives argue that federal ties to the organization still should be severed. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said Planned Parenthood receives roughly $300 million in federal funds.
Ensign said that while he opposes abortion, Republicans "have to face reality. The Democrats are in control of the Senate, in the White House. The Democrats will never allow to defund Planned Parenthood while they are in charge."
"We just have to look at what we can do, what is achievable," Ensign said, "and right now I think one of the biggest moral issues that we face in this country is the debt."
On the Republican side, House Speaker John Boehner said there is still disagreement over amounts of spending in the bill that would carry federal departments through fiscal 2011, which ends in September.
Annette Magnus-Marquart, public affairs manager for Planned Parenthood of Southern Nevada, was in Washington this week seeking meetings with Nevada lawmakers. She was accompanied by Cecilia Garcia, leader of the organization group at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Magnus-Marquart said in an email Friday the visitors highlighted "the anti-Planned Parenthood rider would result in millions of women losing access to preventive health care like cancer screenings and birth control."
She said, "The anti-Planned Parenthood rider is a politically driven proposal that would not cut spending by one cent, or generate one job.
"This is a pretty volatile situation, so I'm not offering any predictions."
The government has been kept running through a series of short-term "continuing resolutions" but the latest one expires at midnight today, meaning there would be no money to pay up to 800,000 federal workers and keep selected services in operation.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.