Washington In an election year battle mixing birth control, religion and politics, Democrats narrowly blocked an effort by Senate Republicans to overturn President Barack Obama’s order that most employers or their insurers cover the cost of contraceptives.
The 51-48 vote on Thursday killed a measure that would have allowed employers and insurers to opt out of portions of the president’s health care law they found morally objectionable. That would have included the law’s requirement to cover the costs of birth control.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, who this week dropped her re-election bid and cited frustration with the polarized Congress, cast the lone Republican vote to block the measure. Two Democrats up for re-election and one who is retiring voted against Obama’s requirement.
Majority Democrats said the legislation would have allowed employers and insurers to avoid virtually any medical treatment with the mere mention of a moral or religious objection.
“We have never had a conscience clause for insurance companies,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Insurers, she said, don’t need an invitation to deny coverage for medical treatment. “A lot of them don’t have any consciences. They’ll take it.”
Republicans argued that the requirement under the health care overhaul violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom by forcing insurers and employers to pay for contraception for workers even if the employers’ faith forbids its use. Roman Catholic leaders have strongly opposed the requirement.
The Senate vote aside, the debate “won’t be over until the administration figures out how to accommodate people’s religious views as it relates to these mandates,” said the measure’s sponsor, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “This is a debate that might be settled at that building across the street,” he said, referring to the Supreme Court.
Such cultural issues have been prominent in this presidential election year, with Republican presidential candidates casting Obama’s health care law as government overreach into the most personal types of medical decisions. The contraception policy in particular touches on religious and women’s rights important to the activists at the core of each party.
A majority of Americans support the use of contraceptives. The public is generally in favor of requiring birth control coverage for employees of religiously affiliated employers, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll Feb. 8-13. The survey found that 61 percent favor the mandate, while 31 percent oppose it. Catholics support the requirement at about the same rate as all Americans.
The legislative fight came after the controversy had already forced the White House to budge somewhat. The administration initially ruled that religious-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and universities must include free birth control coverage in their employee health plans. As protests mounted from Catholic leaders and many Republicans, Obama announced an adjustment: Religious employers could opt out, but insurance companies must then pay for the birth control coverage.