WASHINGTON Vice President Joe Biden said on Thursday the White House was working to address concerns raised by the Catholic church over a new rule on contraceptives, and he believed an escalating election-year battle over the issue would be resolved.
The rule, announced on January 20, requires religious-oriented groups such as charities, hospitals and universities, but not churches, to provide coverage for birth control as other health insurance providers must do. The Catholic Church opposes most methods of birth control.
Top Republicans, including the party's presidential candidates, have condemned the rule as an assault on religious liberty. Prominent Democrats and women's health groups have urged President Barack Obama to hold his ground.
"I'm determined to see that this gets worked out and I believe we can work it out," Biden, who is Catholic, told Cincinnati's WLM radio station during a visit to Ohio.
ABC News, citing sources, said the rule had been the focus of an intense internal skirmish at the White House, with Biden, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and then-Chief of Staff Bill Daley warning it would spark heavy political fallout.
But they lost the fight to a group that included Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and senior advisers Valerie Jarrett and David Plouffe, who argued birth control saved women's lives, reduced unwanted pregnancies and was a fundamental women's health issue, ABC said.
The White House says the rule aimed to strike a balance between Catholic Church doctrine and women's right to health care. It has promised to work with groups to implement the rule, but has not backed away from it.
But the issue has created a political firestorm on a hot-button social issue during an election year dominated until now by debates over the faltering economy.
"The Obama administration has crossed a dangerous line, and we will fight this attack on the fundamental right of religious freedom until the courts overturn it or we've got a president who will reverse it," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell told a conference of conservatives in Washington.
Senate Republicans tried to offer an amendment to rescind it on Thursday but were blocked procedurally by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who urged everyone to "calm down."
Some moderate Democrats facing election this year in conservative-leaning states - like Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Robert Casey in Pennsylvania and Tim Kaine, who is seeking a Senate seat in Virginia - have opposed the rule.
Manchin and Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, introduced a bill to block its implementation, although it has little chance of success in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Most Democrats have backed Obama, however, and a group of about a dozen House Democrats held a news conference to urge him to stand fast on the issue.
"My colleagues and I stand in solidarity with American women who have waited decades for equity in contraceptive coverage," U.S. Representative Nita Lowey told reporters.
Twenty-eight states include similar requirements to Obama's rule in their insurance regulations. Lowey said 335,000 houses of worship would be exempted.
The National Organization of Women said the rule would affect birth control access for an estimated 3 million women.
'IMPOSE THEIR BELIEFS'
"We're really dismayed that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is trying to impose their beliefs about what women should do with their bodies on their employees," said Cindy Pearson, executive director of the National Women's Health Network.
"We think every single person in the U.S. should have access to health insurance and that it should cover everything, no matter where you work," she said.
The regulation, required as part of the 2010 healthcare law, requires health insurance plans to cover basic preventative care for women. The Obama administration, acting on recommendations from experts at the advisory U.S. Institute of Medicine, included birth control as part of that but exempted houses of worship.
Most employers and health plans have until August 1 to implement the new rule, but religious affiliated groups have until next year.
Among general employers, about 63 percent of all firms cover prescription contraceptives and 31 percent were unsure of their coverage, the Kaiser Family Foundation said. Just six percent do not cover contraceptives, it said.
Opinion polls indicate a majority of Americans, including a majority of Catholics, support Obama's decision. A Public Religion Research Institute poll found 55 percent of Americans agree with requiring employers to provide health-care plans that cover contraception and birth control, including nearly six in 10 Catholics.
Many Catholic leaders have been outspoken in opposition to the rule. The Catholic Church rejects most forms of contraception such as birth control pills, but does condone the "natural" or "rhythm" method.
Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called on Obama to back off from the rule and said it contradicted assurances Obama gave him during a White House meeting in November.
Dolan, designated by Pope Benedict for elevation to cardinal, said he now questions if he can work with Obama to settle concerns about the rule.
He called on Obama to "simply give a much more dramatically wide latitude to that religious exemption and protection of conscience and religious freedom, and you're not going to hear from us any more," Dolan said on CBS's "This Morning" program.
"We can't have a government bureaucracy invading the privacy and the independence and autonomy and integrity that our constitution gives to religion," Dolan said.
The EWTN Global Catholic Network said it filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Birmingham, Alabama, seeking to block government agencies from implementing the rule. The case asks the court to find the rule unconstitutional, it said.
EWTN Global Catholic Network calls itself the largest religious media network in the world, with satellite television, radio, and print news services, and other activities.
(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan, Victoria Allen, Lily Kuo, Sam Youngman, Donna Smith, Julie Steenhuysen, Susan Heavey; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Philip Barbara)