White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew said Sunday that the Obama administration has no plans to compromise further on its mandate that all employer-based health care plans provide women with free contraception, including abortion-inducing drugs, despite harsh criticism from conservatives, Catholic bishops and other religious leaders.
That outcry had the president backpedaling a bit Friday, when he announced that the religious employers such as universities, charities and hospitals would not have to pay for contraceptive coverage. He said costs would be borne solely by insurers.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops quickly called that proposal unacceptable.
"We didn't expect to get universal support of the bishops or all Catholics," Mr. Lew said on "Fox News Sunday." "We think that this is something that should put this issue to rest. The president was expecting this policy to be reached over a longer period of time. We said it would take a year or 13 months to transition. We put it out in a much quicker time frame because, clearly, it wasn't helpful to have it lingering out there."
Asked on CNN's "State of the Union," as part of a tour of several Sunday talk shows, whether the White House intends to compromise further, Mr. Lew said, "No, this is our plan. We think it's a very good solution."
On Fox, Mr. Lew brushed aside questions about whether the president had overreached.
"The president has the authority under the Affordable Care Act to have these kinds of rules take effect," he said. "The issue with this being for free is quite an interesting one. If you look at the cost of providing health insurance, it actually doesn't cost more to provide a plan with contraceptive coverage than it does without."
The president's critics continued to call the mandate an infringement on religious freedom.
"There's no compromise here," said Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, a Catholic who has surged to the top of the party's field by focusing on conservative social issues. "They are forcing religious organizations, either directly or indirectly, to pay for something that they find is a deeply, morally, you know, wrong thing. And this is not what the government should be doing."
On CBS' "Face the Nation," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the requirement is another example of government meddling.
"It's riddled with constitutional problems," Mr. McConnell said. "This is what happens when the government tries to take over health care and tries to interfere with your religious beliefs."
Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, introduced legislation last week that would exempt any organization with moral objections from providing birth control, a bill that Mr. McConnell said he wants to see a vote on "as soon as possible."
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, has pledged to reverse the health care policy: "This attack on religious freedom cannot — and will not — stand," Mr. Boehner told the Conservative Political Action Conference last week.
Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said Sunday that there were enough votes in the Republican-controlled House to pass legislation similar to Mr. Blunt's bill. He also used the contraception mandate as a political point, saying it would be a harbinger of worse in a second Obama term.
"If this is what the president's willing to do in a tough election year, imagine what he will do in implementing the rest of his health care law after an election," Mr. Ryan told ABC News' "This Week."
Mr. Lew shrugged off the tough talk from Republicans.
"We're going to go ahead and implement it," he said. "And women are going to have access [to contraception], and institutions like Catholic universities and Catholic hospitals will not be in the position that they had feared. I think that's a good resolution."
He noted that the policy announced Friday is backed by pro-choice groups and the Catholic Health Association.
"A smart and very reasonable move," said Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. Sister Carol Keehan, president and chief executive of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, said she was "very pleased" with the new policy.
But Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the revised policy "does nothing to change the fundamentally anti-religious, anti-conscience and anti-life contraceptive mandate."
Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel and dean of Liberty University School of Law, dismissed it as an accounting gimmick.
"Laundering a Catholic or Christian organization's money through the insurance company to pay for abortifacients does not suddenly correct the moral sin inflicted by Obama," said Mr. Staver. Moreover, religious institutions that are self-insured, like Liberty University, would still have to pay directly for these products, he added, so the "new directive ... solves nothing."
"When religious groups are forced to deny their deeply held religious convictions, it is not called 'balance'; it is called 'tyranny,' " said Penny Nance and Janice Shaw Crouse, leaders of Concerned Women for America, which includes itself as one of the Christian-affiliated employers that don't want to be forced to provide free abortion-inducing drugs in their health insurance plans.
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