Firefighters, birth control lead off Senate budget votes

The Senate kicked off what promises to be a lengthy “vote-a-rama” session tied to their budget plan Friday afternoon by swiftly approving funds for forest firefighters out West and then defeating, largely along party lines, an amendment that would have let secular employers refuse to insure contraception.

Lawmakers milled around the chamber at the outset of a hectic, back-to-back marathon of “yeas” and “nays” on issues that will range from limits on abortion to cybersecurity to banning federal rules regulating restaurant portion sizes.

The budget debate rules gives senators wide latitude to bring amendments and obtain an up-down vote, forging a political record for those watching back  home, even though the measures do not have the force of law.

The chamber is trying to plow through dozens of such amendments into the late evening before passing the Senate’s first budget blueprint in four years.

Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, kicked off the vote-a-rama by asking colleagues to respect one another during the process, only to be interrupted by the presiding officer’s call for the chamber to come to order.

Mrs. Murray also encouraged fellow senators to be present for the votes.

“You leave at your own peril,” she said.

Sen. Deb Fischer, Nebraska Republican, introduced the first divisive measure of the afternoon, calling for a repeal of the contraception insurance mandate in Mr. Obama’s health care law, even though she did not mention the Affordable Care Act by name. It was rejected in a 55-44 roll-call vote.

Dozens of corporations and religious nonprofits have sued over the mandate, saying forms of contraceptions such as morning-after pills amount to abortion and violate their beliefs.

Democrats and defenders of the mandate say most women rely on contraception, and there are plenty who struggle to afford it. As a legal matter, they say employers are not free to impose their religious beliefs on their employees.

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