U.S. Senate Democrats, vying to retain control of the chamber in November’s midterm election, are touting their support for legislation requiring for-profit companies to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives.
Two Democratic senators in competitive races -- Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Udall of Colorado -- joined a group of women lawmakers today to announce the measure, which seeks to reverse the effect of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week.
“Everywhere I went this came up,” said Begich, who had returned from a week-long visit to his home state. “Women believe this is just the beginning of losing their access to women’s health care.”
Begich, who is seeking a second term in November, said in an interview at the Capitol that constituents he met with last week urged him to “make an effort to try to fix this.”
The Senate’s fourth-ranking Democrat, Patty Murray of Washington, said the bill fits into the party’s election-year agenda focused on income inequality and is part of efforts to woo women voters -- especially single ones -- before the November election.
“If you are a woman, and your health care is now impacted by hundreds and hundreds of dollars that you have to pay out of pocket because of this decision, it is an economic impact,” Murray said. She said the legislation, developed in consultation with President Barack Obama’s administration, may get a Senate vote as soon as next week.
Democrats, who control 55 Senate seats in the 100-member chamber, are trying to hold off a Republican takeover. With Republicans expected to maintain their House majority, a net gain of six seats would put them in charge of the Senate and give the party control of both chambers of Congress for the last two years of Obama’s presidency.
Texas Senator John Cornyn, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, called Democrats’ proposal “a ridiculous approach” that would infringe on religious freedom.
“But I recognize that we’re not doing anything serious in the Senate these days,” Cornyn said. “It’s all about show votes and messaging, and that’s too bad.”
In the court case targeted by Democrats, involving the craft-store chain Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., the justices ruled 5-4 that closely held companies can refuse on religious grounds to provide employees with contraceptive coverage.
The contraceptive requirement was part of Obama’s 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Udall, seeking a second term in November, told reporters today that the proposal, which he helped craft, “will keep women’s private health decisions out of corporate board rooms, restoring Americans’ freedom to make personal health decisions based on what’s best for women and their families.”
Affordable birth control helps in “ensuring that women can pursue higher education opportunities, build a career, buy a house or start a family on their time limits,” he said.
Udall has criticized his Republican opponent, U.S. Representative Cory Gardner, for backing legislation that would let employers terminate birth control coverage for their workers.
Democrats are trying to distract from the unpopularity of the health-care law, said Brook Hougesen, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Senate Republicans’ campaign arm.
“Democratic candidates are flailing, unsure whether to embrace Obamacare or run as far from it as possible,” Hougesen said.
The Democratic senators were joined by a group of House Democrats, led by Colorado Representative Diana DeGette, who are introducing a companion bill in the House.
DeGette told reporters that more than 60 House members had signed on to the legislation. She said the Supreme Court indicated in its ruling last week that Congress could act to provide cost-free access to birth control.
“One thing that’s clear about this opinion: Congress can change this,” she said.
Supporters will have a more difficult time advancing the measure in the Republican-led House than in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, praised the court’s ruling in a July 1 statement.
The “decision is a victory for religious freedom and another defeat for an administration that has repeatedly crossed constitutional lines in pursuit of its Big Government objectives,” Boehner said.
Senate Democrats have pursued legislation to close the gender wage gap and raise the minimum wage as part of their effort to court women voters. Supporters cite data showing that two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women.
“This Hobby Lobby decision is outrageous,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters yesterday in Washington. “And we’re gonna do something about it. People are gonna have to walk down here and vote. And if they vote with the five men on the Supreme Court” they will “be treated unfavorably come November, for the elections.”
Democrats are trying to avoid a repeat of the 2010 election, in which Republicans capitalized on sentiment against Obama and the health-care law passed that year to win House control and additional seats in the Senate.
In 2010, 51 percent of women voters supported a Republican House candidate, the first time that number surpassed 50 percent since exit polls began measuring backing for congressional candidates in 1982. Political experts attributed the shift to unusually low turnout among women voters, especially single women.
The 2010 election was a departure from 2008 and 2012, when Obama was on the ballot and Democratic candidates benefited from his campaign’s voter-mobilization efforts. Among women voters nationwide, Democratic House candidates registered a 14-point edge in 2008 and an 11-point advantage four years later, according to exit polls.