Senate Rejects Step Targeting Coverage of Birth Control
The Senate on Thursday upheld President Obama’s birth control policy, voting to kill a Republican effort to let employers and health insurance companies deny coverage for contraceptives and other items they object to on religious or moral grounds.
The 51-to-48 vote illustrated a sharp divide between the parties and brought to the Congressional forefront the social issues that have roiled the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Over four days of debate, Democrats accused Republicans of infringing on women’s rights and focusing on issues long settled while Republicans accused Democrats of threatening religious freedom and violating the Constitution.
“The Senate will not allow women’s health care choices to be taken away from them,” said Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington.
The politically charged fight heated up last month after the Obama administration unveiled its policy requiring health insurance plans to offer free contraceptives for women — a rule that provoked furious criticism from Roman Catholic institutions and some other religious groups. The administration quickly offered a revision that would force the health insurers — not the institutions — to bear the cost.
Still, Senate Republicans tried to seize on the uproar surrounding the administration rule and offered a Senate proposal that would allow a broad exemption for employers, framing it as a matter of conscience as much as contraception.
“The president is trampling on religious freedom,” said Senator Mike Johanns, Republican of Nebraska.
Democrats saw the issue tilting politically in their favor in recent days and forced the Senate vote even as some Republicans indicated unease about pressing the matter. One Republican, Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, joined 48 Democrats and two independents in opposing the plan, days after she announced she was retiring from the Senate. Three Democratic senators — Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska — voted for the proposal, along with 45 Republicans. Mr. Casey and Mr. Manchin are up for re-election this year. Mr. Nelson is retiring.
Despite the vote, Congress is not done with the contraception debate. Speaker John A. Boehner said Thursday that House Republicans also wanted to protect religious employers who object to the requirement for contraceptive coverage.
“It’s important for us to win this issue,” Mr. Boehner said. He did not offer any details about a legislative path forward, but hinted that it would differ from the one tried by Senate Republicans.
Illustrating the political power of the issue, Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, moved quickly on Wednesday to clarify a comment that he was against the Republican plan by Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri. Mr. Romney said that he had misunderstood the question and that he supported Mr. Blunt’s proposal. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. weighed in on the issue during a visit to Iowa State University on Thursday, saying that the administration plan was “screwed up in the first iteration” but that the compromise was the correct approach.
In the Senate, Democrats, defending the new health care law, said the Republican proposal went far beyond contraception and would allow employers to deny coverage for other items and services to which they objected.
Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, said Republicans were attacking women’s health care as part of “a systematic war against women.”
Mr. Blunt offered the proposal as an amendment to a highway bill. Under the proposal, health insurance plans and employers could refuse to provide or pay for coverage of “specific items or services” if the coverage would be “contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the sponsor, issuer or other entity offering the plan.”
Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, urged the Senate to reject the proposal. “The Obama administration believes that decisions about medical care should be made by a woman and her doctor, not a woman and her boss,” Ms. Sebelius said.
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