Schumer says Republicans 'overplayed their hand' in birth control fight

Republicans are ginning up a debate over social issues to distract from the improving economy, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) charged Friday.

Schumer said the birth-control mandate in President Obama's healthcare law might have seemed like a winning issue for Republicans before Obama announced new "accommodations" for religious-affiliated employers. But the tide has turned since then, he said.

"Clearly, they've overplayed their hand," Schumer said on a conference call with reporters. 

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The Senate is likely to vote next week on a proposal from Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to let all employers opt out of healthcare mandates that violate their religious or moral beliefs. Republicans demanded the vote in the immediate wake of Obama's announcement, but it's been Democrats who have worked the hardest to keep the issue alive over about the past week. 

"Perhaps they think this fight can be a quick fix for the enthusiasm gap" in the presidential race, Schumer said, but it would come at the expense of general-election votes.

Asked whether the contraception mandate could hurt Obama's standing with Catholic voters, Schumer said polls show that the most opposition comes from evangelical Protestants, not Catholics.

Republicans say the issue is about religious freedom and whether Obama's order forces institutions like Catholic universities to violate their convictions.

"This debate is not about any one group or one set of beliefs," Blunt said in a statement. "The Obama Administration's mandate violates Americans' First Amendment rights. This bill includes the same conscience protection language that has been part of our law for almost 40 years, and it simply preserves and protects the fundamental religious freedom that Americans have enjoyed for more than 220 years."

Democrats, meanwhile, have framed it around women's health and access to contraception.

"This amendment is really shocking to all of us, but that fact that it's being offered is not surprising," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said.