President Obama's efforts last week have failed to quell the fury over his decision to require most health plans to cover contraception. Republicans are still promising a fight in Congress, and two leading Catholic groups remain on the fence although the administration thought they had been won over.
In response to outrage from Catholic and other religious groups, Mr. Obama said Friday that he would revise the policy to exempt religiously affiliated employers from buying plans that provide free contraception to employees, but he said insurance companies still would have to provide coverage.
The announcement won quick approval from some Catholic groups, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops withdrew its support by the end of the day and the Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities USA — whose support the White House had claimed initially — later issued doubtful statements, saying they were still trying to get answers to questions about how the rule would apply.
On Tuesday, Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, pushed a provision that would allow employers to opt out of covering any health service that violates their moral beliefs, even if they aren't religious institutions, angering Democrats, who accused Mr. Blunt of trying to keep women "barefoot and pregnant."
But Mr. Blunt told reporters Tuesday that his amendment preserves the religious-liberty rights that Americans "had in the first 225 years of constitutional history" and called Mr. Obama's new proposal an "accounting gimmick" because insurance providers would simply pass on the mandated costs to churches and religious institutions.
Mr. Blunt wants to attach the provision to the transportation bill because Mr. Obama has said he will sign it, but the contraception amendment faces substantial barriers in the Senate.
While 20 Republicans have signed on to the legislation, other lawmakers, including two of the chamber's five Republican women — Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine — have indicated that they think Mr. Obama already has made enough concessions.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said Tuesday he will allow a vote on the contraception measure, although he threatened to take action to halt the other amendments.
Meanwhile, Democratic senators slammed Mr. Blunt's amendment, saying it would let employers refuse to cover any type of health service — such as mental health treatment or screenings for HIV. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California offered an example she said she got from "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."
"If I believe, as an employer, that laughter is the best medicine, I can just call my sick employees and tell them jokes," she said. "Or call in some comedians to tell them jokes."
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey called the amendment an attack by the Republican "male oligarchy" and said "the GOP agenda gives women one option — barefoot and pregnant."
Meanwhile Tuesday, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a poll showing that a majority of Catholics and a majority of Americans with an opinion on the matter agree there should be an exemption for religious entities.
Among those who had heard of the issue, 44 percent said even religiously affiliated employers should be required to cover contraception, while 48 percent said religious employers who object "should get an exemption," according to Greg Smith, senior researcher for the survey of 1,501 adults Feb. 8-12. Among Catholics, 70 percent had heard about the issue and 55 percent said they thought there should be a religious exemption.
The poll also asked Catholics about their views on contraception generally, and the results indicate differences on birth control between Catholics in the pews and the church's leadership, a gap the Obama administration and liberal commentators have played up in recent days.
Forty-two percent said it was "morally acceptable," 43 percent said it was "not a moral issue," and another 8 percent said they didn't know or "it depends." Just 8 percent of Catholics called contraception "morally wrong," as the church teaches. But 48 percent of Catholics called abortion "morally wrong," against just 13 percent who said it is "morally acceptable." Another 25 percent said abortion wasn't a moral issue, while 14 percent didn't know or said "it depends."
Separately, the latest Gallup poll finds Catholic support for Mr. Obama statistically unchanged in the past week, with 46 percent approving of the president, compared with 49 percent the previous week.
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