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U.S. Senate Democrats Split Over Obama’s Contraception Rule

The Obama administration’s decision to issue a contraception-coverage rule without a broad exemption for religious groups is creating an election-year split among Senate Democrats, with some Catholics in the party joining Republicans in calls to modify or scrap it.

Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat up for re-election in November, introduced a bill yesterday that would block the federal government from requiring health insurance plans to cover contraception if the purchaser opposes it for religious or moral reasons.

“I feel it’s wrong, the direction and the position that the administration is taking,” Manchin said. “I think it needs to be rebuild, return and let’s go back to where we were.”

Other Catholic Democrats in the Senate, including John Kerry of Massachusetts and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, said they want the administration to adjust its rule.

“I’ve told the White House that I think they need to find a compromise that allows women to get access to birth control through their employer’s health-care coverage, but without pressing this issue of religious freedom to the extent that the current scenario does,” said McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who also is running for re-election this year.

Republican leaders in both chambers say they will work to soften the mandate. Senate Democratic leaders have sided with the Obama administration, which ended months of internal debate with the decision on birth-control coverage.

Biden Hints at Compromise

In the face of opposition from religious leaders, Vice President Joe Biden yesterday hinted at the possibility of compromise before the mandate takes effect. In an interview with a Cincinnati radio station, he said a “significant attempt” will be made to find a solution.

“I am determined to see that this gets worked out, and I believe we will work it out,” Biden said on radio station WLW.

The Senate defections came days after the administration said it will enforce a provision of the 2010 health-care overhaul requiring contraceptives to be provided by employers who offer health insurance. Houses of worship and nonprofit religious groups that primarily employ and serve people of the same faith would be exempt, while religious hospitals and universities would not.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said on Feb. 7 that Democrats discussed the matter at a private meeting, and that the administration had wide support for its rule.

Good Discussion

“Of course it’s not good for the Democrats to go head-to-head against any church, so we certainly don’t intend to do that,” Reid said. “But we had a good discussion in our caucus today and the caucus totally supports the president. I do.”

The intra-party rift is providing an election-year gift to Republicans. They are seeking to demonstrate unity against aspects of the health-care law unpopular with their party’s base and to highlight differences that might gain support from Catholics and social conservatives.

Catholic voters are among a base of white religious voters in states including Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania that feature competitive Senate races and are battlegrounds for control of the White House.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Republicans are discussing an “appropriate response.” House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, who is Catholic, said during a floor speech yesterday he will work to overturn what he called an “unambiguous attack on religious freedom in our country.”

Faith-Based Groups

“This is about whether the government of the United States should have the power to go in and tell a faith-based organization that they have to pay for something that they teach their members they shouldn’t be doing,” said Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican. “It’s that simple.”

There are 15 Catholic Democrats in the Senate, and six of them are up for re-election this year, including McCaskill and Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. Democrats control 53 seats in the chamber, including two independents who caucus with the party.

The dissension extends across religious lines. Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who is an Orthodox Jew, said he opposes the administration’s policy.

“I’m opposed to the rule and I think you have two rights clashing here, which happens often in our system,” said Lieberman. “To me the more important right is the one in the Constitution, which is protection of religious freedom, religious liberty.”

Staying Firm

During a meeting with Senate Democrats yesterday, President Barack Obama was firm in his determination to enforce the rule, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg told reporters.

McCaskill said some Democrats at the meeting asked Obama to reconsider.

At Senate Democrats’ Feb. 7 caucus meeting, one senator spoke out against the rule, said Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democratic leader. He said Casey, who opposes abortion, told other senators he thinks they should press for some kind of middle ground.

Durbin said that might be difficult.

“We’re talking about that,” Durbin said. “It is really extremely difficult to find out what that might be.”

Manchin’s legislation, co-sponsored with Rubio, goes further than Republican proposals to exempt groups that don’t want contraceptive coverage. In addition to stating the government can’t require insurers to offer contraception to those morally opposed to birth control, the measure would allow those people or groups to pursue legal action if needed.

Manchin said he hopes the administration will take action on its own to address religious groups’ concerns.

Not Political

“I’m hoping that they look at this position and find a way to work with the churches and work with the religious organizations,” Manchin said. Asked about the issue’s effect on his re-election bid, he insisted “it’s not political” and said it is a personal decision.

Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the fifth-ranking Republican leader, said he doubts enough Democrats will band with Republicans to prevail in a vote on legislation modifying Obama’s position on the rule.

“I have no reason to think that,” he said. Blunt sought to offer an amendment on contraceptive coverage to a highway bill on the Senate floor and was blocked by Reid.

Germane Amendments

Democrats will try to limit the highway debate to amendments that are germane to the bill, said Senator Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. “Please do not mess up this bill and load this bill down with extraneous matters,” the California Democrat said on the floor.

The rule was proposed in August by the Department of Health and Human Services to require individual and group health plans to cover contraceptives among other preventive medical services. An exemption for “religious employers” left out thousands of religious organizations, including charities, health-care providers and schools.

During a two-month period, the agency received more than 200,000 public comments. In January, the administration said the August rule would generally stand, and nonprofit groups that don’t offer contraception coverage for religious reasons would have until August 2013 to comply.

Religious groups and lawmakers in both parties lobbied for a broader exemption, though the administration rejected that.

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