By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - The Texas attorney general on Friday sued the Obama administration to challenge its decision to shut down a women's health program over a dispute centered on the state's withholding of funds to clinics that provide abortions.
The filing of the lawsuit comes as both Republican officials in Texas and the Obama administration have expressed regret that poor women in the state who depend on the health services could be hurt by the escalating political fight.
"This is about life and the rule of law, which Texas respects and the Obama administration does not," Texas Governor Rick Perry, a former Republican presidential candidate, said in a statement on Friday.
The lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, is against Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, and against her agency.
The federal suit argues the agency acted illegally and in a manner that was arbitrary and capricious when it decided to terminate funding for the Texas Women's Health Program, which serves more than 100,000 low-income women, due to Texas law that prohibits funding of entities that promote or perform abortions.
"(The decision) also violates the Constitution of the United States by seeking to commandeer and coerce the states' lawmaking processes into awarding taxpayer subsidies to elective abortion providers," the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, one day after the Obama administration's Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced it would begin shutting down the Texas Women's Health Program.
The federal government pays about 90 percent of the cost of the program.
The conflict began when the Texas Legislature inserted a "poison pill" into the Medicaid funding bill passed in 2011, which mandates that no funding under the program go to any facility that provides abortion services, even if no state money directly paid for abortions.
If the federal government did not agree to the waiver, the language requires that the program be discontinued.
Cindy Mann, the director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said on Thursday the federal government had no choice but to not renew the program because Texas' denial of funds for abortion restricts the freedom of choice of health providers and is not permitted under federal law.
With the decision, Texas became the first state to have its Medicaid Family Planning Demonstration Program canceled by the federal government. The program provides basic medical services, including breast and cervical cancer screening, and birth control, for 130,000 of the state's poorest women.
A representative from the Obama administration could not be reached for comment.
Rebecca Acuna, a spokeswoman for the Texas Democratic Party, said in a statement that Perry and Abbott are "wagering women's health in their political game of chicken."
Perry on Friday expressed his concern that Texas women should not lose out on health services and repeated his vow made earlier this week to fund those services "with or without the federal government."
The Texas attorney general's lawsuit seeks a declaration from a judge that Texas can place restrictions on abortion funding.
(Reporting By Jim Forsyth: Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; editing by Dan Burns)