Senate rejects Republican birth control challenge

WASHINGTON Thu Mar 1, 2012 4:32pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate narrowly backed a key plank of President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law on Thursday by rejecting a sweeping Republican measure that would have allowed employers to opt out of birth control coverage and other services on moral grounds.

Senators voted 51-48 to set aside a measure proposed by Republican Roy Blunt that would have exempted employers like Catholic hospitals, universities and charities from an Obama healthcare provision that requires most employers to offer free insurance coverage for women's contraceptives.

Democrats and some Republicans had warned that Blunt's "Respect for Rights of Conscience Act," introduced as an amendment to an unrelated highway bill, contained language broad enough to deny any number of benefits from prenatal care and childhood vaccinations to cancer screenings including mammograms on the basis of a conscientious objection.

"It would allow any employer or insurer to deny coverage for virtually any treatment for virtually any reason," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who denounced the measure as "an extreme, ideological amendment."

Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, the only Republican to cross party lines and vote against the Blunt amendment, made it clear before the vote that she favored a "conscience clause" for those opposed to contraceptives but had misgivings about the bill's wording, which did not mention birth control.

The Blunt measure would have amended a section of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that is designed to install national standards for essential healthcare benefits for the first time, including a host of preventive services.

Three Democrats with conservative records on social issues -- Ben Nelson, Joe Manchin and Robert Casey - joined Republicans in voting for the amendment.

In an attempt to quell an election-year uproar, Obama announced earlier this year that religiously affiliated employers would not be required to offer free birth control to workers and the onus would instead fall on insurers. The president's "accommodation" is expected to be formulated into legal language and published as a proposed rule soon.

Neither Obama's gesture, nor Thursday's vote, will likely resolve the controversy, particularly among Catholic authorities who view artificial conception as a sin and want the policy rescinded.

"This issue will not go away unless the administration decides to take it away," Blunt said.


A Baptist who entered the Senate in early 2011, Blunt built a staunch conservative record on social issues including partial-birth abortion, same-sex marriage and gay adoption during a 14-year career in the House of Representatives. He has earned high ratings from Catholic organizations.

Catholic bishops who are at the forefront of the opposition also described Thursday's outcome as only a temporary setback.

"We will not rest until the protection of conscience rights is restored and the First Amendment is returned to its place of respect in the Bill of Rights," said Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who chairs a committee on religious liberty for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey of 1,500 adults released on Thursday showed that nearly two-thirds of Americans favored Obama's policy, including clear majorities of Catholics and evangelicals.

Blunt's amendment was never expected to pass the Democratic-controlled chamber but gave Democrats and Republicans an opportunity for election-year posturing on an incendiary issue that has spawned opposition from Catholics and Protestant evangelicals including a number of opposition lawsuits. In a federal lawsuit in Nebraska, seven U.S. states have joined with Catholic groups and individuals to oppose the rule.

The vote also served as the latest flashpoint in the American culture war between women's healthcare rights and social conservative values that engulfed Susan G. Komen for the Cure in controversy weeks ago when the leading U.S. breast cancer charity said it was cutting funds for Planned Parenthood, an abortion provider. It later rescinded the decision.

Late last year, women's health advocates accused Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of bowing to political pressure from social conservatives for deciding to make the morning-after pill called Plan B One available without a prescription only to women older than 17.

Democrats sought to frame the Blunt amendment as a Republican attack on women's access to healthcare, an argument that lawmakers hoped would appeal to independent women.

"Vote down this dangerous measure," California Democrat Barbara Boxer urged her colleagues. "Vote it down. Stand for the women in the families of this nation."

Republicans presented a religious liberty argument that could resonate with Catholics and other social conservatives.

"If there is one good thing about this debate, it has given us all an opportunity to reaffirm what we believe as Americans," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

Even before the vote got under way, the Obama re-election campaign weighed in with the charge that nearly 80 million women who receive coverage through their employers could lose access to preventive services under the Republican amendment.

A statement from Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said the public could thank Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum for "helping to pave the way for this anti-contraception agenda."

The statement also referred to Romney's muddled position on the Blunt amendment.

Romney told an interviewer on Wednesday that "I'm not for the bill." Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said later he was confused by the way the question was posed and that Romney supported the amendment "because he believes in a conscience exemption in health care for religious institutions and people of faith."

(Additional reporting by Anna Yukhananov in Washington, and Stephanie Simon in Denver; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)

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Comments (49)
Sensibility wrote:
This is highly entertaining political theater. Obama can’t win in November without Catholics, who broke hard for him in 2008. Yet, with Senate leadership at his side, he doubles down on attacks against their religious beliefs.

And yes, I know Catholics use birth control. But there’s a difference between using it and telling the leadership that they have to provide it to everyone free of charge.

Obama thinks this will not stick to him. This is a dicey proposition.

Feb 29, 2012 8:39pm EST  --  Report as abuse
windycityron wrote:
Seems like this is an attempt to recreate the Bush effort, which was successful, for getting the religion wing to vote; in this case by the republicans to get them to the polls to vote against Obama. Real issues don’t get the very religious to the polls, it takes these ultra conservative niche issues to rile their blood for the defense of their closely held view. Views which they can honor by just doing whatever the issues are . . . they are protected by the constitution. No democrat is telling them they must use contraception, get an abortion, marry one of their own gender . . . but they want to force their views on the rest of the nation. They can’t due to the very constitution they want to revise into an american version of a national radical religious theocracy. But heck, it worked for Bush. Sounds like Carl Rove is back in the directors chair.

Feb 29, 2012 9:48pm EST  --  Report as abuse
presydent wrote:
I am opposed to paying for someone’s abortion or contraceptives. Individuals need to be responsible for their own actions or inactions and not expect me, the State, Federal government, or an insurance company to pay for these things. Nonoe of these are ‘free’ since someone has to pay for such ‘services’ and if taxes don’t pay for them then in the case of insurance companies IF forced to pay for them, they merely pass the cost on to its insured. If any of you are OK with providing abortions or contraceptives, then please volunteer to do so with affecting me or my family.

Feb 29, 2012 10:15pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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