By Ramsey Cox
Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked legislation that would require companies to provide birth control coverage in their employee healthcare plans.
The bill failed to advance in a 56-43 vote, with Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Susan Collins (Maine) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) voting with Democrats.
“Today, Senate Republicans blocked legislation that would have made it illegal for any company to deny their employees and dependents specific health benefits required by federal law, like birth control,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said after the vote. “Senate Republicans continue to demonstrate that they are out of touch with women across America.”
Reid switched his vote to “no” on the bill before the vote was closed, giving him the option of bringing it up again.
Democrats put forward the bill to reverse the effects of last month’s Supreme Court ruling, which found that the government could not mandate that certain employers provide birth-control coverage if it conflicts with their religious beliefs.
Republicans have cheered the ruling as a victory for the First Amendment, and say the protections that the high court afforded the Hobby Lobby chain under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act should remain in place.
On the left, the backlash to the ruling has been intense. Democrats want to harness that anger as they try to turn out their voters in the midterm elections.
“Women across the country are watching,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “Who should be in charge of a woman’s healthcare decisions? Should it be a woman — making those decisions with her partner, her doctor and her faith? Or should it be her boss — making those decisions for her based on his own religious beliefs?”
Republicans accused Democrats of playing politics with the issue. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) called the Democratic bill an “embarrassment.”
“This legislation is more than an insult to the people it would target, it is an embarrassment to the party leadership that has embraced it,” Lee said.
“The majority has put their finger to the political wind, and all they want is a show vote. … They ought to be ashamed,” added Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
“It’s the first freedom mentioned in the Bill of Rights — you’d think everyone here would be on the side of upholding it.”
Still, Republicans have signaled they are worried that the court ruling could backfire on them in November, and introduced an alternative bill on birth control Tuesday night.
“We plan to introduce legislation this week that says no employer can block any employee from legal access to her FDA-approved contraceptives,” Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said this week. “There’s no disagreement on that fundamental point.”
The GOP bill includes language from Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) urging the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to investigate whether birth control should be sold as an over-the-counter drug. A prescription from a doctor is now needed to obtain most forms of contraception.
On Wednesday, McConnell said his party thinks that rather than “restricting Americans’ religious freedoms, Congress should instead work to preserve a woman’s ability to make contraceptive decisions for herself.”
Democrats are pushing a similar message, but dispute that religious freedom is the central issue. They say the Supreme Court’s decision allows corporate bosses to dictate healthcare decisions to women, and want the ObamaCare mandate put back in place.
“Women should call the shots when it comes to their healthcare decisions. Not their boss. Not their government. Not anyone else. Period,” Murray said. “But we are here today because five men on the Supreme Court disagree.”
Reid vowed that Senate Democrats would not give up on the bill, and noted that they were only two senators short of success, since Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) missed the vote but supports the legislation.
“Despite Republican obstruction, Senate Democrats will keep working to end this type of discrimination against women,” Reid said. “We will continue to stand up to ensure that a woman’s boss cannot interfere with her personal healthcare decisions.”
House Democrats said they would try to force a vote on companion legislation in their chamber.
“It’s really as personal as it gets,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said of the birth-control ruling.
“I wish [the justices] could have had a conversation with their mothers, with their wives, with their daughters, with their sisters, with anybody else who had any knowledge of the ramifications of public policy in the personal lives of women.”
--This report was originally published at 2:36 p.m. and last updated at 8:34 p.m.