WASHINGTON - The Senate on Thursday rejected a Republican-led effort to vastly expand conscience exemptions to the Obama administration's new birth control coverage rule.
The measure, an amendment proposed by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., to a highway funding bill, would have allowed not only religious groups but any employer with moral objections to opt out of the coverage requirement. And it would have allowed such employers to do so in the case of not only contraception but any health service required by the 2010 health-care law.
The 51-48 vote to kill the amendment followed four days of impassioned debate in which senators weighed the competing claims of religious freedom and the reproductive rights of women. The vote was largely along party lines, although three Democrats -- Robert Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska -- broke ranks to support it, and Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine opposed it.
In effect, the Senate upheld Obama's birth control policy, which guarantees that women have access to insurance coverage for contraceptives at no charge. Only churches are fully exempted, although under an accommodation made by the Obama administration, religiously affiliated organizations such as Catholic charities, schools, universities or hospitals can refuse to provide contraceptive coverage through their insurance plans. In such cases, employers' insurance companies must offer coverage to female employees directly.
'Win this issue'
In general, both parties appear to see the controversy as a winning issue. To Republicans, it offers a way to excite the base and paint the administration as overly intrusive and out of touch with Americans' religious sensitivities. To Democrats, it is an opportunity to portray Republicans as willing to trample women's rights.
"The president is trampling on religious freedom," said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb.
Speaker John Boehner said Thursday that House Republicans also wanted to protect religious employers that object to the requirement for contraceptive coverage. "It's important for us to win this issue," he 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.
Blunt also suggested that the fight wasn't over, saying: "This is a debate that might be settled at that building across the street," referring to the Supreme Court.
On Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden said the administration initially flubbed the issue before regaining its footing by announcing the religious accommodation. "It got screwed up in the first iteration," he said at Iowa State University.
Still, Democrats feel they now hold the political high ground, and they said the vote on the Blunt amendment strengthened their position. Democrats said the proposal went far beyond contraception and would allow employers to deny coverage for other services to which they objected, such as immunizations, prenatal care for children conceived out of wedlock or HIV screenings for gay employees.
"It would simply give every boss in America the right to make the health-care decisions for their workers and their families," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said Republicans were attacking women's health care as part of "a systematic war against women."
The battle is occurring as a historic number of women are running for the male-dominated Senate. Both sides have used the issue for fundraising efforts, but Democrats believe they have found a potential opening with sought-after independent women voters.
'Send them all'
Almost all of the leading Democratic women candidates for Senate -- a record six incumbents and five challengers -- will embark next week on a Western state campaign swing, including a stop in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco hosted by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple's Steve Jobs.
"If you don't like what Republicans are doing, send a woman to the Senate," says a new online ad featuring the 11 women. "In fact, send them all."
Republicans believe this is a risky strategy, especially in more conservative leaning states where there is broader support for the measure. But some acknowledged that Democrats were scoring political points on an issue that Republicans had expected would work to their advantage.
"Unfortunately, many have tried to characterize this amendment as denying women access to contraception," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. "That's false. This measure simply allows health care providers and companies to have the same conscience rights they had before the president's health care bill took effect."
The Tribune Washington Bureau and New York Times and contributed to this report.