Obama administration struggles to contain uproar over birth-control rule

The White House struggled Wednesday to contain the growing uproar over its birth-control mandate, with Democrats peeling off one by one in what has become an increasingly divisive election-year controversy.

Pressure to roll back the new contraception policy mounted quickly as the day wore on, driven by divisions among Democrats, mixed messages from President Obama’s advisers and a constant drumbeat from the GOP.

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“It’s becoming a thorny problem for the White House and it appears to only be getting worse,” said one Democratic strategist. “The politically astute move would be to modify this thing, and quick.”

Asked if the administration should shift course, a former senior administration official said, “I don’t see how they couldn’t. It’s pretty bad.”

With the consternation rising to a fever pitch, Republicans announced a plan to move a bill soon that would repeal the mandate. And prominent Democrats are breaking with the administration over the policy, which requires some religious organizations to cover contraception in their employees’ healthcare plans.

Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) urged the White House last week to broaden the exception for religious employers. Several of their Democratic colleagues have piled on since.


Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said Wednesday that the Health and Human Services Department “misstepped” in adopting the new policy.

“I just don’t think this is a fight that should have been picked and I think it needs to be fixed,” Connolly said. “I have every confidence that the administration will do so.”

Tim Kaine, a former Democratic National Committee chairman running for Senate in Virginia this year, also said the White House should revisit the rule’s exemptions for religious organizations. The current policy does not apply to churches, but institutions such as Catholic hospitals and universities have to comply.

“I think the White House made a good decision in including a mandate for contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act insurance policy, but I think they made a bad decision in not allowing a broad enough religious-employer exemption,” Kaine said in a radio interview, according to a transcript provided by his campaign.

Democrats who support the White House policy dug in Wednesday.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said there’s no need for the White House to adopt a wider religious exemption. Carving out churches and other strictly religious employers “was in itself a compromise,” she said, noting that eight states have contraception mandates without religious exemptions. 

Twenty-three pro-abortion-rights religious groups also backed the White House policy Wednesday, saying it protects the individual choice of whether to use birth control.

Still, one senior Democratic aide said the plan has put some lawmakers in an “awkward position.”

“A lot of Democrats just don’t want to talk about it and be in the position of defending it,” the aide said. “It’s horrible timing.”

The aide said the issue has become “great messaging” for Republicans, especially those who want to court Hispanic voters of Catholic faith.

On Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney indicated there might be some wiggle room to appease those who are most concerned. The press secretary said Obama is “sensitive” to the concerns expressed by religious leaders and others on the contraception issue and said the administration was trying to find a way to implement the decision that can “allay some of the concerns expressed.”


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Obama, Carney added, “is focused on putting in place the right policies for women across the country. He’s focused on finding a balance that is sensitive to the concerns expressed by some religious groups.”

Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod seemed to suggest this past weekend that there was room to compromise on the exemption. But Carney told reporters there’s no change in the administration’s commitment to give women access to these services “no matter where they work.”

The spokesman also said the administration gave religious employers a one-year grace period so that it could work through their objections as it implements the policy. It’s a slight pivot from last week, when a senior administration official said the delay was included simply to give employers time to update their health plans.

At the same time, Carney would not answer a question posed about a news report by Bloomberg indicating that Vice President Biden and former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley had warned of a backlash from Catholic groups if Obama went ahead with the birth-control mandate.

“I’m not going to get into internal deliberations and who was on which side of discussions and debates internally,” Carney said. “I will say that, broadly speaking, the reports that line certain people up in some ways on this issue were inaccurate, both broadly and specifically in terms of some of the individuals. But I’m not going to engage in a guessing game about who thought which way on which issue.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are exploiting the Democratic divisions to turn the contraception rule into a campaign-season wedge issue. They pledged Wednesday to repeal the mandate through legislation if Obama doesn’t back down independently.

“In imposing this requirement, the federal government is violating a First Amendment right that has stood for more than two centuries,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a floor speech Wednesday. “And it is doing so in a manner that affects millions of Americans and harms some of our nation’s most vital institutions.”

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said his panel would begin working on a bill shortly. Senate Republicans also said they’ll try to repeal the mandate.

— Mike Lillis contributed to this report.

— Posted at 5:54 p.m. and updated at 8:07  p.m.