WASHINGTON — The head of Planned Parenthood defended the women's health organization Tuesday before a Republican-run Congress bent on slashing its federal funding, telling lawmakers that accusations against her group fed by stealthily recorded videos are "offensive and categorically untrue."
In Planned Parenthood's first appearance before Congress since those videos emerged this summer, Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee argued that the group needs no taxpayer financing. They cited Planned Parenthood tax documents showing it spends millions on political activities, travel and exorbitant salaries.
"That's money that's not going to women's health care," said committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. "It's a political organization, and that's something that needs to be ferreted out."
Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood's president, told the lawmakers that her group has fallen victim to a "smear campaign" based on videos in which its officials coolly describe how they sometimes harvest tissue from aborted fetuses for scientific research.
Conservatives and many Republicans say the videos, made by abortion foes posing as private purchasers of fetal organs, show Planned Parenthood has broken federal laws including a ban on for-profit fetal tissue sales. The organization says it's acted legally and says the videos were deceitfully edited.
"The outrageous accusations leveled against Planned Parenthood, based on heavily doctored videos, are offensive and categorically untrue," Richards said.
Richards also said the videos have inspired an increase in threats against Planned Parenthood clinics.
The recordings have pumped Planned Parenthood and the abortions many of its nearly 700 clinics provide into an electric political issue, with many GOP presidential candidates frequently lambasting the group. Conservatives' demands that Congress cut its federal payments — for which Republicans lack the votes to succeed — contributed to the GOP unrest that prompted House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to announce his resignation last week.
Planned Parenthood gets around a third of its $1.3 billion yearly budget from federal payments, mostly reimbursements for treating low-income Medicaid patients. By law, nearly no federal funds can be used for abortion. The group provides contraception, sexual disease testing and cancer screenings as well as abortions to 2.7 million patients annually in clinics from coast to coast.
Congress is on track to approve legislation this week preventing an imminent federal shutdown and continuing federal payments to Planned Parenthood. But House committees began working Tuesday on separate legislation that would cut most of the organization's federal money and would be immune to Senate filibuster by Democrats. That means that measure has a strong chance of reaching President Barack Obama's desk, where it would face certain veto.
Richards said just 1 percent of its clinics retrieve fetal tissue when abortion patients request it. She said she is "proud" of the work, which is used to research cures and treatments for diseases, but called it a "minuscule" part of the services Planned Parenthood provides.
Tuesday's hearing occurred in a crowded but orderly hearing room dotted by Planned Parenthood supporters in pink T-shirts. Also seated were abortion opponents who initially wore masking tape over their mouths bearing the word "Life," which they removed when asked by police.
The audience witnessed bitter partisan exchanges between lawmakers that have typified their reactions to the videos.
After noting that nearly all of Planned Parenthood's political activity benefits Democrats, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said, "No wonder they're defending this repulsive game." He also called the organization's fetal tissue work "barbaric."
And after Chaffetz cited tax documents he said showed that Richards — seated before him — was earning $590,000 yearly, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., accused him of "beating up on a woman, to our witness today, for making a good salary."
That remark came as both parties gear up for a campaign year in which both parties will vie for female voters.
Republicans repeatedly asked Richards how much money Planned Parenthood makes from the more than 300,000 abortions it performs annually. She said she did not have a figure but said she's submitted forms from each of the group's 59 local affiliates detailing their income.
The hearing came the same day the House used a near party-line vote to let states stop reimbursing abortion providers with Medicaid, which is jointly funded with federal and state money. The GOP measure, which would make it harder for low-income people to find doctors who provide abortion, has little chance in the Senate.
It also came a day after state investigators in Missouri said they'd uncovered "no evidence whatsoever" that the state's only surgical abortion facility sells fetal remains. At least five other states — Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and South Dakota — also have cleared Planned Parenthood of breaking laws.
Planned Parenthood has defended itself with newspaper ads, petition campaigns and lawsuits against state efforts to curb its funding. On Tuesday, volunteers and supporters scheduled events in nearly 90 cities and planned to give lawmakers more than 2 million signatures on "I Stand With Planned Parenthood" petitions.