By Amie Parnes - 02/10/12 08:26 PM EST
President Obama retreated on Friday from his controversial healthcare rule requiring religious organizations such as charities and hospitals to include contraception coverage in their healthcare plans.
Obama described his compromise as “a sensible approach” in which employees who work for religious organizations that object to the use of birth control would be able to obtain contraception from the employer's insurer.
He also said employers, such as Catholic hospitals and charities, will not have to pay for the birth control or refer their employees to groups that provide birth control.
Obama had come under heavy criticism from the Catholic Church and other religious organizations, Republicans, and even some Democrats over the healthcare rule, which increasingly looked like it would become a campaign issue.
In announcing his decision, the president said he ordered officials to work out a compromise last week that sought a balance between two "core principles" that all women should have access to affordable birth control, and the principle of religious liberty.
Taking pains to emphasize his personal belief in religious liberty, Obama said: "As a citizen and a Christian, I cherish this right," he said.
"After the many genuine concerns that have been raised over the last few weeks as well as, frankly, the more cynical desire on the part of some to make this into a political football, it became clear that spending months hammering out a solution was not going to be an option ... that we needed to move this faster." Obama said.
Based on the outcry, the president said he instructed his administration to speed up the process.
"We weren't going to spend a year doing this," he said "We were going to spend a week or two doing this."
Obama said he's been "confident from the start that we could work out a sensible approach here, just as I promised." But he also took a swipe at those who made the birth control decision a political one.
"I understand some folks in Washington may want to treat this as another political wedge issue. But it shouldn't be. I certainly never saw it that way," he said.
"This is an issue where people of goodwill on both sides of the debate have been sorting through some very complicated questions to find a solution that works for everyone," Obama said. "With today's announcement, we've done that. Religious liberty will be protected and a law that requires free preventative care will not discriminate against women."
Senior administration officials earlier on Friday called the so-called accommodation "the right way forward" that adheres to two principles "the president holds dear."
"Women deserve to have this preventative health care and ... this allows those employees to have the same access and the same affordability," one senior administration official said.
The change from the initial rule is significant, which required all employers to provide birth control as part of their health insurance coverage. Churches were exempt from the rule, but hospitals, schools and charities run by the Catholic Church, for example, would not have been exempt.
The White House had been looking at a Hawaiian state law that requires employers to notify their employees that they do not offer the coverage. The employees can then buy the coverage directly from an insurer. The coverage is provided at a low cost because the insurer saves money by offering the coverage by reducing pregnancies.
In Hawaii, the employer must tell employees that their plan doesn't cover contraception and tell them how to obtain birth control directly from the insurance company. Under the Obama administration's policy, however, religious employers won't have to provide that referral. Insurers will reach out directly to let women know they can obtain contraception, a senior administration official said.
The initial rule set off a political firestorm. Priests from an estimated 70 percent of the nation's parishes spoke against the ruling at Sunday services last month.
In a statement after Obama's announcement, however, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said it sees "initial opportunities in preserving the principle of religious freedom," after Obama's remarks on Friday.
But the conference "continues to express concerns," the statement said.
“While there may be an openness to respond to some of our concerns, we reserve judgment on the details until we have them,” said Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan the president of the group, adding that the past three weeks "have witnessed a remarkable unity of Americans from all religions or none at all worried about the erosion of religious freedom and governmental intrusion into issues of faith and morals."
But Dolan called the Obama administration's decision "a first step in the right direction."
“We hope to work with the administration to guarantee that Americans’ consciences and our religious freedom are not harmed by these regulations,” he said.
The White House has also come under pressure from pro-abortion-rights groups and lawmakers to not back away from the rule, putting Obama in a tricky position. But statement from Planned Parenthood and EMILY's List on Friday praised the compromise.
“We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman’s ability to access these critical birth control benefits," said Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards in a statement. “However we will be vigilant in holding the administration and the institutions accountable for a rigorous, fair and consistent implementation of the policy, which does not compromise the essential principles of access to care."
Meanwhile, Republicans say the White House walked back its plan because it was caught off-guard by the public outcry.
“It’s clear he doesn’t understand or appreciate the issue,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a press secretary at the Republican National Committee. “The president’s so-called accommodation clearly doesn’t change the fact that this is still a government overreach into the freedom of religion.”
Pressure on the administration has been growing all week. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) vowed to have it repealed, and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said his panel will move forward with legislation next week to tackle the healthcare mandate.
Several Democrats had spoken out against the rule, including Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.) and Virginia Senate candidate Tim Kaine, the former head of the Democratic National Committee. Kaine on Friday said he supported the compromise.
Within the administration, the rule had also set off an internal debate, with the vice president and former chief of staff Richard Daley reportedly arguing against the rule.
Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius — who stood by Obama during his announcement in the White House briefing room — told CNN that the administration had found an appropriate balance.
"We think this is a very good solution moving forward," Sebelius said. "This is a solution that both meets the health mandates for women ... and the religious principles of their employers."
—This story was posted at 7:36 a.m. and was updated at 3:26 p.m.