Both Parties Weigh Political Gain From Senate Birth-Control Vote

Democrats say this week’s U.S. Senate debate on birth control will help their candidates among women and independents in the November election. Republicans call it an opportunity to rally religious voters.

The Democratic-controlled Senate plans to vote tomorrow on a Republican proposal to let insurance plans and employers refuse to cover health services that violate their religious beliefs. The measure offered by Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri would cancel a rule from President Barack Obama’s administration requiring health insurers to cover contraception without charge for insured employees of religiously affiliated institutions.

Democrats cast the measure as the latest example of a Republican attack on women’s access to health care. Republicans, outraged over the administration’s rule, say Blunt’s proposal is needed to protect religious freedom and rights of conscience.

The Senate vote will be “very helpful” to Democrats in November, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, told reporters. “Ours is a mainstream position shared by not only Democrats but many independents.”

A United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll conducted Feb. 23-26 showed that 49 percent of adults polled support the Obama administration policy, while 40 percent oppose it. Among women, 53 percent backed the administration and 36 percent were against it.

Romney and Santorum

Republican presidential front-runners Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania also have accused the Obama administration of violating religious liberty.

If the rule isn’t overturned, “it is going to markedly increase turnout” among religious voters for Republican candidates in November, Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, said today in an interview.

The administration initially issued a rule that included religious-affiliated universities and hospitals among employers required to provide coverage for contraception. Houses of worship were exempt.

Republicans in Congress and officials within the Catholic Church reacted with outrage. Catholic doctrine forbids the use of artificial birth control, and church leaders said its affiliated hospitals and colleges shouldn’t have to comply.

On Feb. 10, Obama announced a compromise requiring insurers, and not religious-affiliated colleges and universities, to finance contraceptives for employees of those institutions.

In a letter to fellow Republican senators yesterday, Blunt called the policy “an egregious violation of religious freedom” guaranteed under the Constitution’s First Amendment.

McConnell, Nelson

Blunt’s proposal, which he offered as an amendment to a Senate highway bill, S. 1813, has 23 co-sponsors, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, who is retiring after this term, is the lone Democratic co-sponsor.

Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said today that “this measure would force women to surrender control of their own health decisions to their bosses.” He accused Republicans of trying to take birth control away from women.

At a House Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday, Reverend William Lori, testifying on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the administration’s rule “a clear violation of religious freedom and a direct attack on the personally held views of many Americans.”

Pennsylvania’s Robert Casey, one of 15 Catholic Democrats in the Senate, said yesterday in an interview that he hadn’t decided how he will vote on the matter. Casey, who is seeking a second term this year, said he wants to guard religious liberty though he also wants to protect “folks that should have the right to expect that they can get coverage for contraception.”

Another Catholic Democrat facing a re-election fight this year, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, has criticized Blunt’s amendment.

Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, a Republican who supports Blunt’s amendment, is being challenged in November by Democrat Elizabeth Warren, who opposes it. Brown drew criticism this week from former Democratic Representative Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, son of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, for suggesting in a radio ad that the late senator would have supported Blunt’s amendment. Patrick Kennedy called on Brown to stop running the ad.

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