The 51 to 48 vote to kill the amendment was largely along party lines, although three Democrats — Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) — broke ranks to support it, and Republican Olympia Snowe (Maine) opposed it.
All the Republican candidates have made the birth control issue a key part of their stump speeches in recent weeks, banking on conservative anger over what they contend is the rule’s narrow religious exception.
Only churches are fully exempted, although under an accommodation recently announced 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 for employees. In such cases, employers’ insurance companies must offer coverage to female employees directly, without charging additional premiums.
For the most part, the Republican candidates have focused on President Obama, casting him as hostile to religious freedom. But at a rally in Georgia Thursday, former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) accused former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney of being insufficiently committed to the conservative position.
Santorum contended that Romney’s instinctive reaction to a TV interviewer’s query the day before had been to oppose the Blunt amendment.
“When Governor Romney was asked that question, his knee-jerk reaction was, ‘Oh, I can’t be for it,’ ” Santorum said. “Well, then after his consultants talk to him, he said, ‘Well, I didn’t understand the question.’ Well, maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. If I was asked that question, my gut reaction . . . would be, ‘You stand for the First Amendment; you stand for freedom of religion.’ ”
During that television interview in Ohio on Wednesday, Romney was asked for his view of what the interviewer described as a “Blunt-Rubio bill ... banning or allowing employers to ban providing female contraception.”
Romney responded that he was opposed.
“I’m not for the bill, but look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, husband and wife, I’m not going there,” Romney answered.
The response immediately led to headlines that Romney had abandoned Republican leaders, including Blunt, who serves as Romney’s congressional liaison, on a key social issue.
Romney’s campaign quickly said he had been confused and thought he was being asked to respond to a local proposal in Ohio. “I didn’t understand his question,” Romney said on a Boston radio show later Wednesday. “Of course, I support the Blunt amendment.” And in a statement Thursday, Romney praised senators who backed the measure.