Senate rejects Blunt amendment to limit birth-control mandate

The Senate voted 51-48 Thursday to kill a controversial amendment to weaken the Obama administration’s policy requiring employers to provide birth control to their employees.

The Senate voted to table the measure from Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP senators eager for Romney to join them Senate GOP wary of ending Russia probes, despite pressure GOP on precipice of major end-of-year tax victory MORE (R-Mo.), which would have let any employers opt out of healthcare coverage mandates that violate their religious or moral beliefs.

ADVERTISEMENT
Three Democrats voted with Republicans against tabling the amendment: Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinMcConnell to Dems: Don't hold government 'hostage' over DACA Lawmakers see shutdown’s odds rising Senate campaign fundraising reports roll in MORE (W.Va.), Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseySenate campaign fundraising reports roll in Senate Finance Dems want more transparency on trade from Trump Trump's 's---hole' remark sparks bipartisan backlash MORE Jr. (Pa.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.). Casey and Manchin are both up for reelection this year. 

Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), who announced Tuesday she will retire at the end of this year, was the only Republican to vote in favor of tabling the amendment. 

Blunt and other supporters said the amendment was necessary because an “accommodation” offered by the Obama administration to address complaints that its mandate violated religious freedom was insufficient.


The White House policy requires employers to include contraception in their employees’ healthcare plans without charging a co-pay or deductible, but exempts churches and houses of worship. Religious-affiliated employers such as Catholic hospitals would not have to directly cover birth control in their healthcare plans, but their employees could still obtain it, without a co-pay, from their respective insurance companies.

The fight over the mandate has become a huge political issue, with Republicans seeking to frame it as a battle over religious freedom and Democrats saying it is about contraception and women’s rights.

Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration White House: Trump remarks didn't derail shutdown talks Schumer defends Durbin after GOP senator questions account of Trump meeting MORE (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday, for example, said the amendment amounted to a “contraception ban,” and Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDems search for winning playbook Dems face hard choice for State of the Union response The Memo: Immigration battle tests activists’ muscle MORE (D-Nev.) on Thursday argued that an “extreme ideological” element of the right had hijacked the underlying transportation bill Blunt was seeking to amend.

Blunt and his Republican colleagues were adamant that the amendment was an effort to preserve religious freedoms in the face of government encroachment.

This proposal “simply preserves and protects the fundamental religious freedom that Americans have enjoyed for more than 220 years,” Blunt said Wednesday.

Schumer argued that the vote will end up hurting Republicans in the fall elections. 

“We all know that there’s a wing of their party that regards this as do-or-die, and they had to go along,” he said. “But I have learned over my years that you have to govern from the center, and they’re moving so far over, they’re leaving the center very much open to us.”

Blunt, for his part, told reporters after the vote that he wasn’t surprised by the outcome.

“It’s a matter of conscience. People have to do what they have to do on something like this,” he said. “And I’m confident this issue is not over and won’t be over until the administration figures out how to accommodate people’s religious views as it relates to these new mandates.”

Blunt said the debate over the contraception mandate might ultimately be settled by the Supreme Court. He did not respond when asked whether Thursday’s vote meant that a legislative solution is out of reach.

House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDems face hard choice for State of the Union response Even some conservatives seem open to return to earmarks Overnight Finance: Trump, lawmakers take key step to immigration deal | Trump urges Congress to bring back earmarks | Tax law poised to create windfall for states | Trump to attend Davos | Dimon walks back bitcoin criticism MORE (R-Ohio) offered few details about how and when the House will take up the issue.

“I think the American people are concerned about the government’s infringement on religious liberty,” he said at a news conference. “And you know, the Senate will have its vote today, and the House will decide how we will proceed.”

During the initial furor over the White House policy, BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDems face hard choice for State of the Union response Even some conservatives seem open to return to earmarks Overnight Finance: Trump, lawmakers take key step to immigration deal | Trump urges Congress to bring back earmarks | Tax law poised to create windfall for states | Trump to attend Davos | Dimon walks back bitcoin criticism MORE said the House Energy and Commerce Committee would move quickly to draft a wider exemption for religious organizations. But no such proposal has emerged, and Boehner said the House still has to decide how to move forward.

“I believe that standing up for the Constitution, standing up for people’s protection, under the law and under the Constitution, to practice their faith as they like — this is an important part of my job,” he said. “I’m trying to find a way, frankly, to get a bipartisan agreement to solve this problem.”

Much of the rhetoric on the floor grew heated.

“This is tyranny,” Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchKoch groups: Don't renew expired tax breaks in government funding bill Hatch tweets link to 'invisible' glasses after getting spotted removing pair that wasn't there DHS giving ‘active defense’ cyber tools to private sector, secretary says MORE (R-Utah) said Thursday. “This is discrimination masquerading as compassion, and I’m going to fight it.”

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) argued prior to the vote that Republicans wanted to roll back women’s rights.

“The Republicans want to take us forward to the Dark Ages again … when women were property that you could easily control, even trade if you wanted to,” Lautenberg said. “It’s appalling we are having this debate in the 21st century.”

Thursday’s vote on the amendment came after weeks of wrangling between the parties. Reid and Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerDems face hard choice for State of the Union response Billionaire Steyer to push for Dem House push Billionaire Steyer announces million for Dem House push MORE, a liberal Democrat from California who is managing the floor debate on the underlying transportation bill, moved to block Blunt from calling up the amendment early last month.

But on Tuesday, Reid reversed his position and said Republicans would not allow the transportation bill to move forward without the vote.

— This story was posted at 11:57 a.m. and updated at 3:18 p.m.