And they came as White House officials began hearing complaints from some of their own allies and advisers, who view the rule as a policy mistake that feeds what they see as an unfair charge from Republicans: that President Obama is anti-religion.
The administration’s response Tuesday came on two tracks — with officials telling liberal groups and lawmakers that they were not backing down, while trying to assure religious groups that a phase-in period will allow the two sides to agree on an approach to putting the rule into practice.
“There are conversations right now to arrange a meeting to talk with folks about how this policy can be nuanced,” said Joel C. Hunter, a Florida megachurch pastor who has grown personally close to Obama and advised his White House on religious issues. “This is so fixable, and we just want to get into the conversation.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama is taking the objections of the Catholic leaders “seriously” and will seek to implement the policy in a way that “allays some of those concerns.”
But the assurances were greeted Tuesday with skepticism from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has been leading the opposition to the new requirement.
“So far, ‘work this thing through’ is just the sugar-coated version of ‘force you to comply,’ ” Anthony R. Picarello Jr., general counsel for the conference, said in an e-mail.
Last week, priests around the country read from their pulpits strongly worded letters from Catholic leaders condemning the administration’s actions. And group officials said they have been told in no uncertain terms that there will be no reversing of the policy.
The events Tuesday underscored how the issue presents political challenges for Obama, who is trying to balance the demands of his liberal base against the need to court Catholics and other religious voters, particularly in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Supporters of the rule say that all employers, regardless of their religious affiliations, should be required to provide female employees the full breadth of health-care coverage, including birth control, the “morning-after pill” and sterilization services. The rule exempts churches but covers religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals, many of which receive federal funds.
But contraception services violate Catholic tenets, and the bishops, as well as leaders from other faith groups and denominations, say the rule violates their religious freedom.
Republicans see vulnerabilities for the president, not just on the issue of religious liberty but also on the role of government. They believe that Obama, in approving the new regulation, played into their long-running critiques that he is anti-religion and eager to expand the reach of government.