Senate Democrats on Thursday narrowly defeated Republican legislation that would have protected religious universities and hospitals from an Obama administration rule requiring them to cover contraceptives under their employee health plans even if that violates the church’s beliefs.
The Senate voted 51-48 to kill an amendment offered by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., after days of emotional debate on and off the chamber floor. Despite the defeat, the issue could be revived in the House, which is considering similar legislation that has the support of House Speaker John Boehner.
“I think it is important for us to win this issue,” Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday. “Our government, for 220 years has respected the religious views of the American people, and for all of this time there has been an exception for those churches and other groups to protect the religious beliefs that they believe in, and that is being violated here.”
But Boehner would not guarantee that a House vote would be scheduled. House Republicans could shy away from the measure if they decide the risks are too high that Democrats will be able to portray the issue as one of women’s rights — rather than religious liberty, as Republicans claim — and turn it against the GOP in the fall elections.
“We will make sure that women across the country are aware of what Republicans propose to do,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., vowed Thursday.
Blunt’s amendment was aimed at sparing the Catholic Church and other religious groups that run hospitals, universities and charities from having to pay for their employees’ birth control under the new health care reform law.
But the Blunt provision was written so that it would have permitted companies to opt out of other parts of the health care law that they found morally objectionable.
Democrats argued the broad scope of the language would give health insurers a legal excuse to deny a wide range of preventative care and treatments for women. The party was able to frame the debate as one that pitted Republican men against the rights of women to obtain reproductive health care coverage.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who led the fight against the Blunt amendment, propped up an enlarged photo of an all-male witness table that was taken at a recent House Republican hearing on the contraception rule.
“Do you see one woman there?” Boxer said, pointing to the giant photo. “I don’t. They are all men. Not one of them suggested men shouldn’t have their Viagra, but we’ll put that aside.”
Boxer said the Blunt amendment “allows any insurance company that doesn’t want to provide a service — maybe an expensive service — to say, I have a moral objection to this.”
Republicans argued that their amendment was aimed at preserving religious freedom, which they said will be trounced under the new health care law if religious-affiliated companies are forced to adhere to the new contraception rule.
“I believe what this does is protect First Amendment rights,” Blunt said.
The vote on Blount’s proposal did not break along party lines. Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine who announced her retirement this week, broke with her party and voted against the amendment. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania and Ben Nelson of Nebraska voted for the measure.