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 BluntTop Senate Dem: We're going forward with understanding we can work with White House on DACA Sunday shows preview: Trump officials gear up for UN assembly Air Force One is Trump’s new boardroom 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) ManchinGOP sees fresh opening with Dems’ single payer embrace Trump steps up courtship of Dems The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (W.Va.), Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseySenate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill GOP eying 'blue slip' break to help Trump fill the courts Dems offer alternative to Trump administration's child care proposal 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. Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSenate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill This week: Senate wrapping up defense bill after amendment fight Cuomo warns Dems against cutting DACA deal with Trump MORE (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday, for example, said the amendment amounted to a “contraception ban,” and Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidThe Memo: Trump pulls off a stone-cold stunner The Memo: Ending DACA a risky move for Trump Manchin pressed from both sides in reelection fight 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 BoehnerSpeculation mounts, but Ryan’s job seen as safe Boehner warns Trump: Don't pull out of Korea-US trade deal GOP Rep: Ryan wasting taxpayers dollars by blocking war authorization debate 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, John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerSpeculation mounts, but Ryan’s job seen as safe Boehner warns Trump: Don't pull out of Korea-US trade deal GOP Rep: Ryan wasting taxpayers dollars by blocking war authorization debate 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 HatchFinance to hold hearing on ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea Week ahead in finance: Clock ticking for GOP on tax reform 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 BoxerTrump riles Dems with pick for powerful EPA job Pelosi's chief of staff stepping down Time is now to address infrastructure needs 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.