WASHINGTON - The US Senate has rejected a Republican measure to overturn President Barack Obama's proposal to offer birth control services to women and faith-based groups.
"I don't want Republican politicians making decisions about my family's health care," Sen. Frank Lautenberg told the Wall Street Journal on Friday, March 2.
"Women are capable of making their own health-care decisions."
The Senate voted 51-48 to set aside a measure proposed by Republican Senator Roy Blunt to exempt employers like Catholic hospitals, universities and charities from Obama's healthcare law.
The measure would have carved out a so-called conscience exemption to a new requirement under Obama's law that all heath plans cover an array of treatments, including contraception, at no additional cost to workers.
But Democrats denounced the bill for denying a number of benefits from prenatal care and childhood vaccinations to cancer screenings on the basis of a conscientious objection.
"It would allow any employer or insurer to deny coverage for virtually any treatment for virtually any reason," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who denounced the measure as "an extreme, ideological amendment."
In an attempt to quell an election-year uproar, Obama announced earlier this year that religiously affiliated employers would not be required to offer free birth control to workers and the onus would instead fall on insurers.
Obama's "accommodation" is expected to be formulated into legal language and published as a proposed rule soon.
Neither Obama's gesture, nor the Senate's vote, will likely resolve the controversy, particularly among Catholic authorities who view artificial conception as a sin and want the policy rescinded.
"This issue will not go away unless the administration decides to take it away," said Blunt, who entered the Senate in early 2011.
Blunt built a staunch conservative record on social issues including partial-birth abortion, same-sex marriage and gay adoption during a 14-year career in the House of Representatives. He has earned high ratings from Catholic organizations.
Catholic bishops, who are at the forefront of the opposition, described the Senate's defeat as only a temporary setback.
"We will not rest until the protection of conscience rights is restored and the First Amendment is returned to its place of respect in the Bill of Rights," said Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who chairs a committee on religious liberty for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Reuters reported.
Blunt's amendment was never expected to pass the Democratic-controlled chamber but gave Democrats and Republicans an opportunity for election-year posturing on an incendiary issue that has spawned opposition from Catholics and Protestant evangelicals including a number of opposition lawsuits.
In a federal lawsuit in Nebraska, seven US states have joined with Catholic groups and individuals to oppose the rule.
The vote also served as the latest flashpoint in the American culture war between women's healthcare rights and social conservative values.
Democrats sought to frame the Blunt amendment as a Republican attack on women's access to healthcare, an argument that lawmakers hoped would appeal to independent women.
"Vote down this dangerous measure," California Democrat Barbara Boxer urged her colleagues.
"Vote it down. Stand for the women in the families of this nation."
Republicans presented a religious liberty argument that could resonate with Catholics and other social conservatives."If there is one good thing about this debate, it has given us all an opportunity to reaffirm what we believe as Americans," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.