Debate suddenly shifts on birth control

The furor over President Obama’s birth-control insurance mandate appears to have vaporized as quickly as it blew up.

The White House faced just two questions on the issue at a briefing with reporters Monday, just days after the intense controversy threatened to swamp the president’s reelection campaign.

While the president’s Friday “accommodation” did not win over the White House’s most harsh critics, some Republicans and Catholic groups have offered measured support, including centrist Maine Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids Study: ObamaCare bills backed by Collins would lower premiums Right scrambles GOP budget strategy MORE, suggesting Obama might have at least muddied the waters. 

In statements to a home-state newspaper, the senators said Obama seemed to have addressed the concerns over religious institutions. Snowe said the new policy appeared to include the changes she had pressed for, and Collins called it a “step in the right direction.”

Former GOP Rep. Joe Scarborough (Fla.) said the divide among Republicans could help redefine the debate as a battle over contraception, rather than religious freedom. 

“He had a unified Catholic front against him, he split that in half now and now he can move on,” Scarborough, the host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” said Sunday on “Meet the Press.”

“If this debate moves on and stops being about religious freedom and starts being about contraception, then Republicans lose in a very big way,” Scarborough said. 

Under the approach laid out by Obama on Friday, employees who work for religious organizations that object to the use of birth control, including hospitals and charities associated with the Catholic Church, would be able to obtain contraception from the employer’s insurer. 

Their employer would not have to offer birth control as part of a healthcare plan, and would not be required to refer their employees to a plan with birth control. 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ripped the administration for its stance and signaled it would not give up the fight, but White House press secretary Jay Carney sounded newly confident Obama had put the issue behind him in his comments on Monday. 

“We feel very confident that the policy the president announced on Friday ensures both that women will get access to important preventative services like contraception and they will be able to do so while preserving the religious liberty of the institutions they work for,” he said. 

“Non-profit organizations won’t have to pay for it, and they will not have to refer their employees for contraceptive services,” Carney added. “And the organizations that will be most affected by this, Catholic charities and the Catholic Health Association, have expressed their support for this policy and we obviously appreciate that.”

Of the bishops, Carney said the administration “never set out with the assumption that everyone would be satisfied with this approach.” 

He added that the Catholic bishops “never supported healthcare reform to begin with, of which this is an important element.”

Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said the only opponents of the adapted rule will be people who “who would oppose the president anyway.”

“Most Americans think women should have access to birth control, regardless of where they work,” he said. 

GOP opponents of the new rule are showing no signs of backing down. 

Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRyan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Richard Gere welcomes lawmakers' words of support for Tibet Dem lawmaker gives McConnell's tax reform op-ed a failing grade MORE (R-Fla.) and Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntDems push for more money for opioid fight Trump asked Senate Republicans to end Russia election interference investigation: report An overlooked solution to the opioid epidemic MORE (R-Mo.) have introduced bills to block the mandate, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat McConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Brent Budowsky: A plea to Alabama voters MORE (R-Ky.) said over the weekend that he wants a vote on the issue “as soon as possible.”

“Saying the insurance company pays is like saying the utility company pays the extra cost of your utility bill. We all know who pays the utility bill — you do,” Blunt said at the Heritage Foundation on Monday. 

The Missouri senator predicted, though, that the debate isn’t over, and that Obama would still have to defend the rule going forward.

“I think the president is going to have to defend the position he has taken,” Blunt said.

In the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is working on a repeal bill. A committee spokesman said Monday that a timeline for the bill hasn’t been set, but the new policy hasn’t deterred House Republicans. Upton said in a statement that Obama didn’t solve the problem with the contraception mandate and that the issue is an example of government overreach.

Carney, however, suggested the White House thinks it will win the war for public opinion over the GOP legislation, which he said is “simply not the right approach.”

The GOP bills, he said, “would give any employer the right to deny the women who work for them contraceptive coverage. That’s dangerous, and it is wrong. And we oppose that.”

A former senior White House official said that after a series of missteps on the issue, Obama has put a lid on the problem. 

“We are fully in the season where any misstep from the White House will get outsized attention and second-guessing, even by some in our own party,” the official said. “I went through most of the fall of 2008 with people asking me, ‘Do you realize you’re going to lose this race?’ 

“The White House reacted in days to modify a plan and make it more inclusive,” the official said. “There’s not much more to be said.”