Senate Rejects Republican Birth Control Challenge

By a vote of 51 to 48, the Democratic-controlled Senate on Thursday voted down a proposal to overturn the contraception requirement brought by Republicans who call Mr. Obama’s plan an assault on religious liberty.

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. Photo: Senate Democrats/Flickr

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, reports Reuters.

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.

In January, when the Obama administration announced that religiously affiliated institutions like colleges and hospitals would not be exempted from a requirement that all health plans cover birth control, Roman Catholic bishops said the policy would force them to violate their faith. Evangelical groups and Republican leaders took up the cause and have injected it into the presidential campaign.

Mr. Obama, Democratic leaders and many women’s health advocates say the issue is a matter of basic health care and describe the opposition as part of a broader Republican war on women.

“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 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.

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.

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.

Meanwhile, the close divide in a Senate vote Thursday over whether employers can refuse insurance coverage for contraception mirrors a sharp partisan divide among the public, according to a national poll and interviews with women around the country.

According to The New York Times, 63 percent of Americans said they supported the new federal requirement that private health insurance plans cover the cost of birth control, according to the survey of 1,519 Americans, conducted from Feb. 13 to Feb. 19 for the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

The Kaiser survey found little evidence of a gap between men’s and women’s views of the contraceptive mandate. But it did suggest a significant age gap, especially within the Republican Party. Just over half of all Republicans ages 18 to 49 supported requiring contraceptive coverage, while only 33 percent of Republicans ages 50 and higher did so.

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.”

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