By Sam Baker and Mike Lillis - 02/17/12 01:30 AM EST
Female Democrats staged a walkout from a GOP-led committee hearing Thursday after no women were allowed to testify in support of the White House’s contraception mandate.
Their protest, and the optics of an initial panel consisting only of men, underscored the difficulty Republicans are having in framing the issue as a fight over religious freedom. Democrats want to make it a debate over contraception and women’s health, a shift that could help the party win over female voters in an election year.
“Imagine, they’re having a panel on women’s health, and they don’t have any women on the panel — duh!” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said during a press briefing in the Capitol. “What is it that men don’t understand about women’s health and how central the issue of family planning is to that?”
Two women did testify on the second panel, but they both oppose the White House policy. Democrats wanted to hear from Sandra Flake, a Georgetown University law student who supports the administration’s policy, but Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) would not allow her to testify.
Issa said Flake’s testimony was unnecessary because the hearing — titled “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?” — was about religious freedom and not about birth control.
Issa’s office shot back against Pelosi’s criticism, noting the two women who testified on the second panel and saying Pelosi “is either ill-informed or arrogantly dismissive of women who don’t share her views.”
But it was pictures of the initial all-male witness table that spread like wildfire through Twitter and liberal blogs, fueled by attacks from Pelosi and other Democratic lawmakers.
“If you need to know more, tune in,” Pelosi said. “I may at some point be moved to explain biology to my colleagues.”
The GOP’s effort to frame the debate around religion got even harder later in the day, when a prominent supporter of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum made some ill-advised comments about contraception and abstinence.
“You know, back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly,” said Foster Friess, a major donor to the super-PAC supporting Santorum.
MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell was visibly taken aback by the remark, and it gave women’s groups and Democrats even more ammunition to argue that the debate is about contraception.
The narrative has shifted since Friday, when President Obama announced new “accommodations” for religious institutions. Churches and houses of worship were always exempt from the mandate, and under the new policy, employers like Catholic schools and universities won’t have to directly provide or pay for birth control for their employees. Workers will get contraception through their insurance company.
There are still open questions about how that policy will apply to companies that self-insure, however, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says the accommodations don’t go far enough. Other critics have argued that the change announced by Obama is little more than an accounting gimmick, and that religious groups would still be subsidizing birth control covered under the insurance plans.
But by at least appearing to give ground to religious concerns — and splintering leading Catholic groups — the White House seems to have shifted the debate into territory where it is far more likely to win.
“We may yet look back on this debate and wonder whether this was a Terry Schiavo moment,” wrote the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, which in a new analysis Thursday said Republicans might be hurting themselves by attacking a popular policy.
According to the Greenberg poll, voters’ views of the Obama administration’s policy are about the same whether it’s framed as a women’s health issue or a religious one. Roughly 49 percent of those surveyed said they supported the policy no matter which way it was described to them.
Republicans suffered a major political blow in 2005 when they came back to Washington to pass a bill preventing doctors from taking Schiavo off of life support. The move was widely seen as a major overreach by social conservatives into people’s private lives and medical decisions.
Republicans in both chambers are pushing legislation to let more employers opt out of federal coverage mandates. Sen. Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) proposal would let employers deny coverage for any benefit that contradicts their religious or moral beliefs — an approach Democrats argue would go far beyond birth control.