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 Blunt (R-Mo.), which would have let any employers opt out of healthcare coverage mandates that violate their religious or moral beliefs.
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 Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday, for example, said the amendment amounted to a “contraception ban,” and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (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 Boehner (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, Boehner 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 Hatch (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 Boxer, 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.