Think there was a contraceptives compromise? Think again.
When the White House offered up accommodations on the health reform law’s mandated coverage of birth control Friday, it felt like a momentary detente. The new provision — which would have insurance companies pay for an employee’s birth control rather than a religious employer who objected — came with a wave of endorsements. It won over many liberal Catholics who had initially opposed the requirement, such as the Catholic Health Association’s Carole Keehan.
It did not, however, win over Senate Republicans. In interviews this afternoon, they appeared committed to pursuing legislation that would widen exemptions from these provisions — and prolong an already contentious fight over the place of contraceptives and religious liberty under the health reform law.
“I’d like to get it on a must-sign vehicle that this president must sign,” says Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), of a bill he’s introduced on the issue. “If that doesn’t happen, I hope to get the next president to sign it. It’s an important issue, and I’m going to continue to pursue it.”
Blunt’s bill is among four legislative proposals floating around on the Hill that would widen the exemption from the health reform law’s mandated coverage of contraceptives. It would go beyond the contraceptives piece of the law to allow employers an exemption from covering other services they oppose based on “religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
“The Respect the Rights of Conscience Act doesn’t mention any medical procedure. It doesn’t mention anything specifically. It treats Christian Scientists like Catholics, and Muslims just like Methodists,” Blunt says. “The principle is you cannot tell people they have to do things that violate their faith beliefs. It’s as simple as that.”
Blunt’s provision could come up as early as this afternoon, as Democratic Senators expect it to be attached to the larger transportation bill that Congress is now debating. Democratic Senators don’t seem to be shying from the issue: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) says he “has agreed to a vote on contraception” should an amendment be offered. And Democrats expect it will be.
“We were told for sure that that’s what [Republicans] want to go with,” says Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the transportation bill. “They could have changed their mind today, but that’s what we were told.”
Blunt, meanwhile, says he’s still “finalizing” his strategy. “I’d be pleased to have the debate, I’d be pleased to have a vote and I hope we can,” he says.
This afternoon, I also caught up with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). He has proposed a separate, narrower law that would just repeal the health reform law’s mandated coverage of contraceptives. He was happy to see the President offer some accommodations on the issue, he told me, but thinks they did not go far enough.
“It’s good that he’s admitted you can’t force religiously-based institutions to violate their conscience, but the way it was crafted could still lead to some results that are less than positive,” he told me. “So we’re still going to examine that. As I’ve always said repeatedly, the hope and the ideal scenario here would be that the president would come up with something on their own, without having to force legislative action.”
If the president doesn’t, Rubio says, “This will continue.”
The exact path forward isn’t clear. Blunt’s amendment is pretty much dead-on-arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But it does have some leadership support: Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has signed on as a co-sponsor. Over the past day, Blunt says, he’s gathered about 29 other co-sponsors of his provision. Across the Capitol, in the Republican-controlled House, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) is working on companion legislation. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has also opposed the Obama provisions.
“My goal is to get that bill signed into law at some point,” Blunt told me.