GOP largely ignores birth-control furor in hearing with Sebelius

Republicans have vowed to keep pressing their attack against the White House’s birth-control mandate, but you wouldn’t know it from the way they approached a hearing with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday.

It was the first time Sebelius has testified before Congress since announcing the contraception mandate. Yet despite a flood of statements and speeches denouncing the policy as an attack on religious freedom, Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee barely mentioned it Wednesday.

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Ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the only member to ask Sebelius about the policy, joked about the tenor of the questioning. 

“See how easy this has been for you?” he said to Sebelius at the end of the hearing. “I think we should do this every month.”

Hatch opened with questions about the revised contraception mandate and whether Sebelius had discussed it with either the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops or more supportive groups, such as Planned Parenthood. She said she hadn’t. And that was about it.

Even the committee’s more socially conservative members focused their questions on relatively small-bore, wonky issues, such as Medicare contracting and funding for graduate medical education.

There are still questions surrounding details of the new contraception policy — among them, how it will work for employers that self-insure. HHS says it hasn’t yet figured out how to handle self-insured plans. But no one on Finance raised the issue or pressed Sebelius for a solution.

Sebelius told reporters after the hearing that final regulations on the coverage mandate will apply to self-insured employers.

"Yes i think that we will apply it to both, making sure there are arrangements in place so, whether it's an insured plan or a self-insured plan, that the employer who has a religious objection doesn't have to directly offer or pay for contraception,” she said.

The administration’s original proposal required employers to cover contraception in their healthcare plans, with an exemption limited to churches and houses of worship. The mandate led to criticism from conservatives and Catholic groups that religiously affiliated universities and hospitals would be forced to cover birth control. 

Under the changes President Obama announced last week, institutions such as Catholic universities won’t have to cover birth control, but insurance companies will have to provide it without charging a co-pay.

Asked whether she was surprised not to get more questions about contraception, Sebelius said, “I’m always interested in what’s on people’s minds.”

The muted hearing came just a day after Republicans demanded — and got — a vote on legislation to repeal the contraception mandate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he’ll allow a vote on an amendment, sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), that would let all employers opt out of coverage mandates that violate their religious or moral beliefs.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said over the weekend that the debate will continue until the White House “backs down.”

But Democrats see a political advantage in the contraception fight, especially after Obama announced new “accommodations” for religious employers last week. They have aggressively attacked the Blunt proposal, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is using the debate to raise money. The DCCC sent a fundraising email Wednesday warning that “Republicans are on track to give corporations the power to deny women access to health care.”

Blunt said his amendment would simply preserve the religious freedoms provided by the Constitution.


— This post was updated at 5:23 p.m. to add Sebelius' quote about self-insured plans.