WASHINGTON -- The Hyde Amendment has become a top discussion point in 2020 politics — and something of a purity test for Democrats — after Joe Biden, the leader of his party's presidential pack, announced that he's now an opponent of the 1976 policy.
But the amendment that restricts government funding for most abortions has been preserved by Democrats for decades — including with votes from some of the presidential hopefuls now decrying it. Biden's reversal Thursday crashed that party. His timing raised questions about how in touch he is with the new generation of Democrats that propelled a record number of women into the ranks of White House hopefuls and Congress.
Look for a public airing of the issue during the first Democratic debates later in June. It's all part of the legacy of the late Rep. Henry Hyde, the Republican abortion foe from Illinois, a dozen years after his death.
Here's what to know about the abortion limits named for him:
WHAT IS THE HYDE AMENDMENT?
It states that Medicaid — the taxpayer-funded program for poor Americans — won't pay for abortions unless the woman's life is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. Hyde first introduced it in 1976, shortly after the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade legalizing the procedure.
Since then, Congress had had to reauthorize it as part of spending bills that fund the government. Democrats have had to live with it — and vote for it — as part of broader spending packages. Leading Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have reasoned that the amendment is the cost of getting other good things in the bills and of keeping the government running.
But that acquiescence may be changing.
The Hyde Amendment and the abortion issue have leapt to the forefront of the 2020 presidential conversation, in part because a record number of women are serving in Congress and running for president in the crowded Democratic nominating fight. Almost all the candidates have voted for the spending bills containing the Hyde Amendment they now decry. It's historically had bipartisan support and must be passed every year.
In September, for example, the spending bill that funded the departments of defense, labor, health and human services, and education — and contained the Hyde Amendment — won yes votes from House Democratic presidential candidates Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Tim Ryan of Ohio and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas. Voting yes on the same measure in the Senate were presidential candidates Michael Bennet of Colorado, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
But they and other Democrats show signs of backing away from Hyde, with most arguing the abortion limits disproportionately affect poor Americans.
"The Hyde Amendment is bad policy and I'll never support it," Moulton tweeted.
In fact, there were signs of cracks in 2016, when Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton called for a repeal of Hyde and her approach was first included in the party's platform.
BIDEN: NO APOLOGIES FOR 'LAST POSITION'
Their voting records didn't stop the other candidates from dumping on the Hyde Amendment earlier this week when Biden's campaign affirmed, initially, that he still supported it.
"We do not pass laws that take away that freedom from the women who are most vulnerable," Warren said Wednesday on MSNBC during a town hall. Harris and others called for Hyde's repeal.
In an about-face three weeks before the Democratic debates, Biden on Thursday declared that he no longer supports the Hyde Amendment. He told a Democratic Party fundraiser in Atlanta that "if I believe health care is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment" that makes it more difficult for some women to access care.
"I've been struggling with the problems that Hyde now presents," Biden said. "I want to be clear: I make no apologies for my last position. I make no apologies for what I'm about to say." He said "circumstances have changed" in states that have adopted severe restrictions on abortion.
POSSIBLE HYDE ISSUES ON THE HILL
Members of Congress — all 435 seats in the House and 34 in the Senate — are up for reelection next year, too. And the battle over the amendment could come to Congress long before the 2020 election, as the House is set to begin voting next week on a bill to fund the departments of labor and health and human services.
WHAT DOES THE COURT SAY?
The Supreme Court upheld the Hyde Amendment in 1980, finding that states participating in Medicaid were not obligated to pay for abortions.
Regardless of Roe v. Wade, the court held, "It does not follow that a woman's freedom of choice carries with it a constitutional entitlement to the financial resources to avail herself of the full range of protected choices."
THE HYDE LEGACY
The tall, white-haired former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee cast a long shadow on the abortion debate, through President Barack Obama's signature Affordable Care Act and now the 2018 campaigns.
Hyde, who died in 2007, was a freshman member of the GOP when he offered the amendment to ban government funding of abortion. It became law a year later, and Hyde defended it throughout his career. He also was pragmatic. During Bill Clinton's presidency, with House and Senate Democratic majorities, Hyde let pass an expansion that added a rape and incest exception to the funding ban. The alternative might have been losing the ban entirely.
Look for more discussion on the Hyde Amendment and Biden's position when the Democrats meet for their first presidential debates June 26 and 27 in Miami.
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor and Alan Fram contributed to this report.
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