Senate Democrats Seek Political Gain From Contraception Vote

Senate Defeats GOP Bid to Cancel Contraception Rule
Photograph: Getty Images

Senate Democrats say Republicans in close re-election races will suffer for voting to let employers and insurers refuse to cover birth control and other health services that violate their religious beliefs.

The Democratic-controlled chamber voted 51-48 today to block the proposal by Missouri Republican Roy Blunt. It would have canceled a requirement from President Barack Obama’s administration that health insurers cover contraception without charge for insured employees of religiously affiliated institutions.

The Republican measure “takes aim at women’s access to health care,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. “It would allow any employer or insurer to deny coverage for virtually any treatment for virtually any reason.” Mammograms, flu shots and prenatal care are among the services women could be denied, Reid said.

Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, who announced this week she won’t seek re-election, was the only Republican who voted against Blunt’s proposal. Three Democrats supported it -- Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who are Roman Catholics seeking re-election this year, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who is retiring.

Republicans, outraged over the administration’s rule, said Blunt’s proposal was needed to protect religious freedom and rights of conscience under the Constitution. Catholic doctrine forbids the use of artificial birth control, and church leaders said its affiliated hospitals and colleges should be able to refuse contraception coverage to their employees.

First Amendment

“If Democrats no longer see the value in defending the First Amendment because they don’t think it’s politically expedient to do so, or because they want to protect the president, then Republicans will have to do it for them,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.

Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat, said Republican senators seeking re-election in moderate or Democratic-leaning states, such as Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts, would face a backlash from voters for supporting the measure.

“It’s going to be awfully hard to defend it back home, especially in places like New England,” Schumer told reporters, referring to Republican votes in favor of Blunt’s proposal.

Democrats portray Blunt’s measure as the latest example of a Republican attack on women’s access to health care. Today’s vote will be “very helpful” to Democrats in November, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, told reporters yesterday. “Ours is a mainstream position shared by not only Democrats but many independents.”

‘Boss Deciding’

Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat facing a tough re-election fight, said in an interview that she wasn’t concerned about backlash from Catholic voters over her opposition to Blunt’s proposal.

“Most voters in my state do not want the boss deciding what health care they can get,” McCaskill said.

Another Democrat seeking re-election this year, Jon Tester of Montana, said in a statement that the proposal was “a reckless attempt to undermine individual freedom and restrict access to health care for women.”

Casey of Pennsylvania said in a statement that although he supports contraception, Obama’s rule doesn’t do enough to protect religious liberty.

The administration’s original version of the rule included religious-affiliated universities and hospitals among other employers required to provide coverage for contraception. Houses of worship were exempt.

Compromise Rule

After Republicans in Congress and officials within the Catholic Church reacted with outrage, Obama announced a compromise Feb. 10 requiring insurers, and not religious-affiliated colleges and universities, to finance contraceptives for employees of those institutions.

Blunt’s proposal would have allowed any health coverage provider, not just those affiliated with religious institutions, to refuse to cover services or procedures that conflicted with its religious or moral beliefs. He offered it as an amendment to a Senate highway bill, S. 1813.

House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said he is trying to get a bipartisan agreement to end what he called “government encroaching” on “the American people’s right to their own religious views.”

“It’s important for us to win this issue,” said Boehner, a Catholic.

Congressional Republicans say opposition to the administration’s rule may boost turnout among religious voters for Republican candidates in the November election. Republican presidential front-runners Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania are among the Republicans who have accused the Obama administration of violating religious liberty.

Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, said yesterday in an interview that if Obama’s rule isn’t overturned, “it is going to markedly increase turnout” among religious voters for Republican candidates.

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