* Top Republican demands lifting of birth control rule
* White House seeks to ease objections, defuse controversy
* Republicans see Obama vulnerability on issue
(Adds Democratic retreat, Carney on report of internal dissent)
By Thomas Ferraro and Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON, Feb 8 The top Republican in
the U.S. Congress on Wednesday denounced President
Barack Obama's new rule on contraceptives as an assault on
"religious freedom" and vowed to overturn it, as the White House
sought to prevent the issue from becoming an election-year
Fanning a political firestorm, House of Representatives
Speaker John Boehner joined an outcry from religious leaders and
social conservatives over a requirement that health insurance
plans, including those at Catholic hospitals, charities and
universities, offer birth control to women.
Seeking to ease a controversy that has roiled the 2012
presidential race, White House spokesman Jay Carney appeared to
leave the door open to compromise. He said Obama was sensitive
to religious beliefs on contraception and hoped to find a way to
implement the rule that can "allay some of the concerns."
But Obama, at a meeting with Senate Democrats, reaffirmed
his decision and was "not equivocating," Senator Frank
Lautenberg, who attended the closed-door session, told Reuters.
Republicans have seized upon the issue, seeing a chance to
paint Obama as anti-religion and put him on the defensive at a
time when signs of economic improvement appear to have energized
his re-election bid.
The White House, caught off-guard by the fury of the
response and now trying to calm objections, accused the
Republicans of trying to make "political hay" out of the issue.
It said it had begun outside discussions but gave no immediate
sign of what, if any, concessions it might make.
"This attack ... on religious freedom in our country cannot
stand and will not stand," Boehner vowed in a speech on the
floor of his chamber.
The escalating fight centers on a provision in the 2010
healthcare law that requires health insurance to cover basic
birth control services for women - even at Catholic charities,
hospitals and universities.
Catholic bishops contend the policy infringes on religious
liberty because the church does not condone the use of birth
control pills or other contraceptives.
Boehner said if the president refuses to rescind the
measure, Congress will do so legislatively.
But such a bill would have little chance of getting through
a divided Congress. While Boehner may secure backing in the
Republican-dominated House, he faces problems in the Senate,
which is controlled by Obama's fellow Democrats.
No matter how Congress responds, Obama is in a political
bind. A retreat would anger his liberal base, while refusal to
budge could alienate some Catholic voters.
SEEKING TO CALM CONCERNS
At the White House, Carney said the administration was
"focused on implementation of this rule," but made clear that it
had time to try to address opponents' objections.
"There are ways to approach this that would ensure that the
rule is implemented so that women have access to these important
healthcare services no matter where they work, but also
hopefully would allay some of the concerns," Carney said.
Carney pushed back against a New York Times report that
Vice President Joe Biden and several other senior Catholic men
in the administration cautioned about the political risks and
were pitted against women advisers like health secretary
Kathleen Sebelius, who argued in favor of the rule.
"I'm not going to get into internal deliberations," Carney
told reporters. "Broadly speaking, the reports that line certain
people up in some ways on this issue were inaccurate."
The rule has drawn heavy fire from the political right,
including Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Carney took a swipe at Romney on Wednesday, calling him an
"odd messenger" to be attacking Obama on the issue. He said it
was "ironic" because Romney was criticizing Obama for pursuing a
policy that is "virtually identical with the one that was in
place when he was governor of Massachusetts."
Romney, speaking to reporters in Atlanta, shot back that
Carney "needs to check his history," saying the birth-control
provision was already in effect when he took office and that he
tried to get it removed.
With the matter threatening to explode into a major
election-year fight, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said
he and fellow Senate Democrats support the president.
"Some have decided, again, to use women's health for
political football," said U.S. Representative Lois Capps, a
Backers of Obama's new rule say employees of faith-based
groups should have access to birth control services in their
health insurance coverage.
The Obama administration said on Tuesday it was willing to
work with church-affiliated employers to implement the new
policy, which was finalized on Jan. 20 but will not take effect
until next year.
During the weekend, clergy from the Catholic Church called
for congregations across the country to pressure Obama to back
Boehner said, "Americans of every faith and political
persuasion have mobilized in objection" to the rule, which he
said "constitutes an unambiguous attack on religious freedom."
"This rule would require faith-based employers ... to
provide services they consider immoral," he said, including,
"sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs and devices, and
(Additional reporting by David Lawder, Donna Smith and Richard
Cowan; editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Mohammad Zargham)