* Senate votes 51-48 against Blunt's contraceptives measure
* Amendment aimed to reverse Obama contraceptives rule
* Republicans oppose policy on religious, moral grounds
By David Morgan and Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON, March 1 The U.S. Senate
narrowly backed a key plank of President Barack Obama's
healthcare 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."
The Senate debate provided a national stage for a growing
American culture war between women's reproductive rights and
conservative social values, incendiary issues that both
Democrats and Republicans hope to exploit for votes in the Nov.
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. Snowe announced
earlier this week that she would not seek a fourth term, saying
she had grown tried of destructive partisan battles.
The Blunt measure would have amended a section of the 2010
Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that is designed to
set 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 uproar over contraceptives, Obama
announced this year that religiously affiliated employers would
not be required to offer free birth control to workers, saying
the onus would fall instead 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. 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.
POLL FAVORS OBAMA POLICY
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
Blunt's amendment was never expected to pass the
Democratic-controlled chamber. But it gave Democrats and
Republicans an opportunity for election-year posturing on an
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.
A different battle in the same war erupted in Congress where
Democratic lawmakers called on the House Republican leadership
to repudiate conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh.
Limbaugh on Wednesday described a female student from a Catholic
university of being "a slut" and "a prostitute" after she spoke
openly about the need for birth control coverage.
Women's issues have been front-and-center in recent months.
Just over a month ago, breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen
for the Cure became engulfed in controversy for cutting funds to
Planned Parenthood, an abortion provider, and then rescinding
And Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
faced accusations of bowing to political pressure from social
conservatives for deciding late last year 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." A spokeswoman said later he was
confused by the way the question was posed and that Romney
supported the amendment.