WASHINGTON–Democrat Richard Blumenthal is a freshman senator at the bottom of the Senate’s seniority ladder, without a seat on either the spending or budget committees.

But suddenly, an issue that Blumenthal has been the most vocal about since joining the Senate–abortion–appears to be at the crux of the fight over the 2011 federal budget. And Planned Parenthood–the organization Blumenthal’s chief of staff, Laurie Rubiner, used to lobby for–is playing a starring role in the final countdown to a potential government shutdown.

“The women’s health issue is front and center,” Blumenthal said after emerging from a closed-door meeting of Senate Democrats.

Blumenthal said he never could have imagined when he was elected to the Senate–or when he hired Rubiner to lead his Senate office–that women’s reproductive rights would lock Congress in such deep political paralysis and put the government at the edge of a spending blackout.

“What’s happening right now, very bluntly, is that the House Republicans… are holding the budget and the nation hostage in an ideological-driven war on women’s health,” he said.

At issue, according to Senate Democrats, is a proposal pushed by the House GOP to “defund” Planned Parenthood, which operates health care clinics across the country. Those clinics offer women a range of health care services, from birth control and abortions to cervical cancer screenings and HIV tests.

In February, House Republicans approved a spending bill that cut $61 billion from domestic discretionary spending through the rest of this fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30. They also included several policy provisions putting new restrictions on abortion and stripping about $330 million preventative-health services, including federal funding for contraception and cancer screenings, from going to Planned Parenthood and other women’s health clinics.

During the February House debate, Republicans said these measures were needed to insure that no federal dollars help subsidize abortion. Although federal law already prohibits use of federal funds to pay for abortions, the GOP has argued that the Planned Parenthood money is mixed with other privately-raised funds and therefore helps the group offer women abortions.

“We will live up to our commitment to make sure there is no government funding for abortion,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said in February. “This is consistent with where the American people are. This is consistent with cutting spending.”

In the current standoff, Republicans say that abortion and other policy provisions they had sought to include in the spending bill are not the major sticking point.

“Most of the policy issues have been dealt with, and the big fight is over spending,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said at a news conference this afternoon. “When we say we’re serious about cutting spending, we’re damn serious.”

Boehner and other GOP leaders declined to say how the divisive policy issues had been resolved. And others in the House GOP conference said killing the Planned Parenthood money is a major demand that they will not relent on.

“We want to defund Planned Parenthood–that’s the House position,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. “People respect the sanctity of life.”

Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican and Tea Party leader in Congress, said there’s a “very strong intersection” of support on this issue between old-school social conservatives and the new Tea Party members elected in November.

Still, she and others said the real divide now was over dollars, not abortion or other women’s health care services.

Boehner has said he’s pushing for the largest spending cuts possible, and earlier this week he tagged his compromise number at about $39 billion.

Senate Democrats say they have virtually met that figure-agreeing to about $38 billion in cuts. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, standing with almost the entire Democratic caucus, said the top negotiators agreed on that figure last night. But he said Republicans have now pulled back over the Planned Parenthood provision.

The topic has triggered a series of back-to-back, dueling press conferences today by Senate Democrats and House Republicans.

“After weeks of being told that the continuation of funding for this government was about budget cuts and deficits and spending, well now we find out at the 11th hour, hours before the government shuts down, that that’s not what it’s about,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “It’s about funding for women’s health care. The one open item left is about women’s health care.”

“This is about the money,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. Asked how the Planned Parenthood issue had been resolved, he said, “I’m not going to  answer that.”

Rubiner, Blumenthal’s chief of staff and Planned Parenthood’s former top lobbyist, declined to comment for this story. But in an interview before she started her job with Blumenthal, she said she did not expect abortion issues to play a central role in the 112th Congress.

“I certainly hope not,” she said in December. Republicans “were not elected to focus on abortion. They were elected to focus on jobs and the economy.”

Rubiner added that abortion is “always a distraction.” And, she said, “there’s no question that whenever they can drag down a bill with some kind of an abortion rider, they do.”

She also said at the time that she didn’t expect abortion to be a major focus on her work for Blumenthal. Now, Connecticut’s junior senator is among those saying he is prepared to hold out on the issue, even if it means a shutdown, in the current spending fight.

“I don’t see any room for compromise on so profoundly central an issue to women’s health care and our families,” he said.

He brushed off questions about whether Rubiner was giving him or other Senate Democrats strategic advice on how to navigate the battle.

“My chief of staff is certainly in agreement with me, but I’m at the lead of this fight because of my very deeply held and long-standing beliefs,” he said.

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