Scott Brown Tries To Become the First Kennedy Republican

Feb. 29 (Bloomberg) -- The Mad Men of the Republican Party have captured another convert. Scott Brown, the otherwise severely moderate senator from Massachusetts who won Ted Kennedy’s seat in a special election two years ago, has signed on as a co-sponsor of the Blunt amendment.

Fastened to the highway bill that will be voted on as soon as this week, the amendment essentially takes the deal the Obama administration gave Catholic bishops on contraception coverage and extends it to any employer or insurance company that finds a health service runs afoul of its “religious belief” or “moral conviction.” Although primarily about birth control, the amendment is so broadly written it could allow Burger King to refuse to cover testing its employees for cholesterol because doing so might crimp its deep religious belief in hamburger patties (and be self-incriminating to boot).

Massachusetts has a lot of Catholics (although they are the least religious Catholics in the country). But it has even more women, who must be flummoxed by this recent itch of conservative men to go after coverage of prescription contraceptives (while still covering Viagra).

Appeasement Strategy

Until now Brown has been as careful to appease the huge Democratic majority in his state (a 3-to-1 advantage) as an elderly Brahmin is to cultivate his window box on Louisburg Square. With only two years in office before he had to run for re-election, Brown compiled a voting record that got him a hearty handshake from President Barack Obama as he entered the hall for the State of the Union last month. Not only did he vote to end the filibuster over the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, he was one of four Republicans to vote for it. He voted to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” and against Representative Paul Ryan’s plan to overhaul Medicare.

So, you might ask, what’s a supposedly moderate guy like Brown doing with a retrograde bill like the Blunt amendment? For one, it’s no fun being a pariah with your homeboys. It gets lonely if your only friends are the Maine moderates Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe (who just announced she will not run for re-election). And Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri is part of the leadership and a prodigious fundraiser (and, unlike Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, highly likable). Who wants to sit alone in the Senate Dining Room?

Brown also needs to raise money from Republicans for what’s looking like an exceedingly close race. Brown brushes off his likely opponent, Elizabeth Warren, as a pointy-headed Harvard professor (she is) and the policewoman of Wall Street (she was, sort of, as the congressional overseer of the Troubled Asset Relief Program and the person who set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). She is also raising money at a blistering pace. Brown took in $15.7 million in 2011; Warren, who announced her candidacy only in September, collected $9 million.

But Brown may have gone too far. At the same time he was courting Republican money, if not actual Republicans, he also tried to invoke a Democratic hero. “Like Ted Kennedy before me,” he said in a radio ad, “I support a conscience exemption in health care for Catholics and other people of faith.” Brown was referring to a provision inserted by Kennedy in 1995 legislation that said Catholic health practitioners would not have to participate in procedures (read: abortions) that violated their conscience.

Warren called this hogwash and said Brown’s fight to crimp contraceptive coverage is just “plain wrong.” The Kennedy family also objected, asking Brown to pull an ad that mentioned the late senator (he refused). In a letter, former Representative Patrick Kennedy wrote: “Providing health care to every American was the work of my father’s life. The Blunt Amendment you are supporting is an attack on that cause.” (Ted Kennedy’s bill allowed a doctor or nurse who didn’t object to perform the services, and later bills he sponsored specifically required employers to provide contraceptive coverage.)

Contraception and Communion

It’s one thing for the bishops to ostracize the secular socialist in the White House this election year, much as some did by saying they would refuse Communion to Senator John Kerry when he was a presidential candidate eight years ago. But it’s dicey for Brown to go there: Does he really believe, as Rick Santorum does, that contraception is bad for women? And it would be even more astounding if Brown were to head down the path paved by Bob McDonnell, the governor of Virginia and possible vice-presidential candidate, who has intermittently supported requiring a vaginal probe for pregnant women seeking a legal abortion. Brown’s move makes Mitt Romney’s partial embrace of the personhood amendment look moderate.

For years, Catholic institutions, including Massachusetts’ own Boston College, have covered contraception without a peep from the bishops. I called Catholic Health East, with 54,000 employees, to see whether it covered contraception and was referred to the Archdiocese of New York, which hasn’t returned my call. Dignity Health, as Catholic Healthcare West has been renamed, covers its 60,000 employees.

Bishops don’t have to worry about re-election. Senators do. So there was a little ambivalence in Brown’s op-ed article, published last week in the Boston Globe, defending his support of the Blunt amendment. Citing his wife and daughters (of course), he stood for the proposition that “insurance companies should have to cover services that many women want and rely on.” But then he went on to create an exemption for conscience so wide the Church of Dunkin’ Donuts could waddle through. He’s toast -- unglazed, no cinnamon, no sugar.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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