Dems say economy is top priority, but won’t walk from birth control debate

Democrats say they want to talk about jobs and the economy but they seem more interested in keeping the national debate on contraceptive care and women's issues.

Their goal is to paint the GOP as anti-women. Democrats feel they've struck gold in the debates over the administration's mandate on contraceptive care and religious organizations, and the subsequent storm raised by Rush Limbaugh’s comments. 

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The current focus is a shift from the beginning of the debate earlier this year, when Democrats were on defense regarding what Republicans painted as an assault on religious freedom. Now they're playing offense and are more than happy about it. 

Senate Democrats are currently pushing a renewal of the Violence Against Women's Act, which strengthens the reach and penalties for domestic violence. The legislation faces fierce opposition from conservatives and appears to also be dividing some Senate Republicans along gender lines.

On Thursday, a half dozen Senate Democrats took to the floor to urge the Senate to take up the Violence Against Women's Act. Similarly, shortly after the debate over the rejected Blunt Amendment ended, all twelve women Democrats in the Senate sent House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) a letter calling on him to forget his push to continue Blunt's effort in the lower chamber. By then, however, Blunt's proposal, which would have allowed organizations to refuse insurance coverage for procedures they considered immoral, had lost significant support and Republicans were more focused on transportation and jobs bills.  



While trying to win the support of women by painting Republicans as anti-women, Democrats continue to claim that the recovering economy and a recent promising jobs report are the subjects they want to talk about.


Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate's top messaging Democrat, recently said his party would have a "laser" focus on the economy.

"We talk about the economy a lot," a Hill leadership Democratic aide said. "But the whole issue on women's health is they opened up this line of attack on us."

The aide suggested that Democrats would still have highlighted women's rights and contraceptive issues if the conversation had not moved in that direction, but perhaps not as much. 

"But I don't think we would rise to this level of the national debate if there hadn't been further actions," by the GOP to keep the spotlight on contraception and women's issues, the aide said. "Our members are out talking about jobs and the economy every single day and that's their top priority."

A recent Gallup poll found that 70 percent of Americans consider the economy the most important issue, down just 1 percent from a month earlier but up 4 percent from January.

Jess McIntosh, deputy communications director for the liberal women's rights group Emily's List, said that Republicans have also been saying they want to talk about the economy, while instead taking on social issues like contraception.

"I think that Republicans are continuing on the social issues agenda because they can't talk on jobs and the economy," McIntosh said. "I think the strategy is they can't talk about the economy because they have such a terrible record."

President Obama's reelection campaign recently began a drive to win the support of women voters by highlighting benefits of his administration’s healthcare reform law. The campaign sent out mailings to a million women to highlight the mandatory contraception coverage rule. 

The campaign is also using nurses across the country to advocate for the law. The push is called "Nurses for Obama." The campaign is organizing events and phone banks as well.

Similarly, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) used Limbaugh's comments and the topic of women's rights in an early response to Rep. Bob Turner (R-N.Y.) when he announced his candidacy to unseat the junior senator. 

"We're are less than 72 hours away from the New York State Republican convention and just today, Rush Limbaugh's former producer, Congressman Bob Turner, entered the race to take on Kirsten," Gillibrand's office wrote in a fundraising email.

Limbaugh further enflamed the controversy a little over two weeks ago when, on this national radio show, he called Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student, a “slut” and a “prostitute” after she spoke in favor of the contraception coverage rule before a Congressional panel. 

Republicans, for their part, seem more interested in moving the legislative and national focus to gas prices and the economy and away from Limbaugh and women's rights. They say they aren't abandoning the fight for, as they frame it, religious freedom, but the topic of women’s rights is one they’d like to change or ditch altogether.

A recent Bloomberg National Poll found that 6 in ten Americans considered the contraceptive debate as one about women's health, not religious freedom.

Rick Santorum's presidential campaign, just ahead of primaries in Mississippi and Alabama, pivoted from the former Pennsylvania senator's stance on contraceptive care to one on gas prices and energy. 

"It does seem like they [Democrats] want to talk about something other than jobs and gas prices," a Republican leadership aide said. 

"If Senate Democrats would rather focus on social issues, that's their prerogative and they'll have to answer for their priorities with the American people this fall," the aide added. 

Democrats showed no sign of letting up on women's rights issues. One aide told the Hill said that Democrats are likely to continue focusing on women's issues as well as the economy.