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 Defense: Trump unveils new missile defense plan | Dems express alarm | Shutdown hits Day 27 | Trump cancels Pelosi foreign trip | Senators offer bill to prevent NATO withdrawal McConnell blocks bill to reopen most of government Bipartisan senators reintroduce bill to prevent Trump from withdrawing from NATO 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 RubioOvernight Defense: Second Trump-Kim summit planned for next month | Pelosi accuses Trump of leaking Afghanistan trip plans | Pentagon warns of climate threat to bases | Trump faces pressure to reconsider Syria exit Pressure mounts for Trump to reconsider Syria withdrawal Senate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees MORE (R-Fla.) and Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntMcConnell: Senate won't override Trump veto on shutdown fight Senate immigration talks fall apart Emergency declaration option for wall tests GOP MORE (R-Mo.) have introduced bills to block the mandate, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTSA agents protest government shutdown at Pittsburgh airport The case for Russia sanctions Pompeo planning to meet with Pat Roberts amid 2020 Senate speculation 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.”