Senators narrowly rebuffed a Republican-led attempt Thursday to undo President Obama’s new contraception mandate as the culture wars and charges of religious freedom violations spilled out onto the chamber floor and both parties vowed to make the vote an issue in November’s elections.
On a 51-48 vote, the Senate rejected an amendment to a transportation-funding bill offered by Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, that would have allowed employers to opt out of covering health care services to which they had moral or religious objections.
The Catholic Church in particular has objected to the mandate, arguing that it violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion by forcing church-affiliated colleges and hospitals to fund something that the church teaches is morally objectionable. But Democrats inside and outside government said the proposal went too far and would go beyond contraception by letting any business or insurer refuse to provide any medical service.
The vote reflected sharp partisan divisions, with every Republican but one voting in favor of the amendment and all but three Democrats opposed.
“The closeness of this vote shows how high the stakes are for women this year,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “A Republican-led Senate might pass this bill, a Republican president like Mitt Romney would definitely sign it. If Republicans keep this up, they’re going to drive away independent voters.”
But Republicans in Congress and the presidential field argue that the issue is religious freedom and noted that the amendment does nothing more than restore the status quo, circa 2009.
“Religious institutions and persons will now be compelled by the state to violate their conscience,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican. “Prior to 2010 and the passage of Obamacare, the First Amendment was intact. Today, it is in tatters.”
The fight began in January after the Obama administration added all contraceptives approved by the Food and Drug Administration to the list of mandatory preventive services that insurance plans must cover without charging co-payments or deductibles.
The administration offered churches an exemption to directly paying for contraception coverage and later expanded it to religious schools, hospitals and charities. Many religious leaders called the offers a bookkeeping gimmick. They pointed out that insurance companies will simply pass contraception costs on to them and that many large religious institutions self-insure, thus would be forced to pay anyway.
While the legislation would have allowed employers to opt out, it still would have required their insurance carriers with no objections to cover contraceptives at no cost. It also wouldn’t have struck down dozens of state laws that require insurers to cover contraception.
“Unfortunately, this is only a glimpse of what Americans can expect as a result of President Obama’s government health care takeover — which is why we need to repeal and replace this bill with common-sense bipartisan solutions,” Mr. Blunt said. “This fight is not over.”
Democrats launched an all-out attack on the amendment this week, spending hours blasting it from the Senate floor, warning of refusals to cover blood transfusions or childhood immunizations and saying that insurers could require people to engage in faith healing.
The Obama administration called the amendment too broad, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called it “dangerous and wrong.”
“This proposal isn’t limited to contraception nor is it limited to any preventative service,” Mrs. Sebelius said. “Any employer could restrict access to any service they say they object to. This is dangerous and wrong.”
That criticism was repeated by outside groups. Dr. Robert W. Block, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the Blunt amendment “would have allowed employers to deny their employees services such as vaccinations or blood transfusions, based solely on religious or moral beliefs.”