OVERNIGHT HEALTH: Controversy swirls around Blunt birth-control measure

Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney said Wednesday he would not support a bill to weaken the White House’s birth-control mandate. Romney also said Wednesday that he would support the same amendment.

The quick backtrack followed an interview with the Ohio News Network. Romney was asked about the proposal, from Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP senators eager for Romney to join them Senate GOP wary of ending Russia probes, despite pressure GOP on precipice of major end-of-year tax victory MORE (R-Mo.), that would let employers opt out of healthcare mandates they find immoral.

“I'm not for the bill,” he said, adding that contraception shouldn’t be an issue in the White House campaign.

Romney’s campaign then waked back the comments, saying he supports the Blunt amendment and that the question was asked “in a very rushed and confused manner.”

According to a transcript of the interview, the interviewer did slightly mischaracterize the Blunt amendment. But Romney still answered, and it’s not as if the proposal has been hurting for press coverage lately.

We have more about Romney’s comments here.

The gaffe came just a day before the Senate is set to vote on the Blunt amendment, which will be offered to the chamber’s transportation bill. And the politics of that vote were still changing late Wednesday. Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinMcConnell to Dems: Don't hold government 'hostage' over DACA Lawmakers see shutdown’s odds rising Senate campaign fundraising reports roll in MORE (D-W.Va.) said he would vote for the Blunt amendment, while a few centrist Republicans remained on the fence.

Senators spent most of the day Wednesday on floor speeches about the proposal. Democrats, led by Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerDems face hard choice for State of the Union response Billionaire Steyer to push for Dem House push Billionaire Steyer announces million for Dem House push MORE (D-Wash.), slammed the amendment as an attack on women’s health, while Blunt and his Republican colleagues argued that the White House policy infringes on religious freedom.

Piece by piece: That's how House Republicans are chipping away at President Obama's healthcare reform law, with the help of some Democrats. After repealing the law's long-term-care CLASS Act earlier this month, the lower chamber aims to get rid of its controversial cost-cutting — Republicans would say "rationing" — board in time for oral arguments before the Supreme Court at the end of March.

The Energy and Commerce Health subcommittee took the first step toward that goal Wednesday with a 17-5 vote to repeal the Independent Payment Advisory Board. Two Democrats — ranking member Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) — crossed the aisle and voted with Republicans. Healthwatch has this morning's wrap-up here.

The White House tried to stem a flow of defections with a defense of the IPAB before the panel voted. President Obama has made the board a centerpiece of his efforts to contain federal healthcare costs and proposed strengthening it in last year's deficit-cutting proposal. Healthwatch's Sam Baker has more on that here.

Thursday's agenda

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen SebeliusKathleen SebeliusThe House needs to help patients from being victimized by antiquated technology Obama cabinet official: Clinton White House doubled down on 'abusive behavior' John Roberts has tough job of keeping faith in Supreme Court MORE defends her agency's $76.4 billion budget request before the Energy and Commerce Health subcommittee. Here's the Republican memo about the hearing. 

Simultaneously, the committee's commerce subcommittee holds a hearing on the "scourge" of prescription drug abuse. Witnesses include Richard Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and the attorneys general of Florida, Kentucky and Ohio.

State by state

A California bill would expand access to abortion by allowing nurse practitioners, physician assistants and nurse midwives to perform the procedure.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said women whose employers don't offer contraception without co-pays can just change employers if they want it.

Minnesota is turning down $3 million in federal grant funds to develop a health insurance exchange after receiving more than the $28 million the Legislature approved.

Lobbyist registrations

Eva Clayton Associates International / Pharmacy Choice and Access Now (opposes merger of Express Scripts and Medco Health Solutions)

Strategic Health Care / Carilion Clinic Physicians (Roanoke, Va.)

Winning Strategies Washington / Developmental Disabilities Health Alliance

Reading list

A federal court in Washington, D.C., ruled that graphic warning labels imposed by the federal government on tobacco products violate the First Amendment, LegalNewsline.com reports.

Rush Limbaugh called a law student testifying in favor of the administration's birth-control mandate a "slut."

Republicans are divided on Sen. Roy Blunt's (R-Mo.) birth-control amendment, Greg Sargent writes at The Washington Post.

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Comments / complaints / suggestions? Please let us know:

Julian Pecquet: jpecquet@thehill.com / 202-628-8527

Sam Baker: sbaker@thehill.com / 202-628-8351

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