Senate Democrats plan to allow a vote next week on an amendment to the surface transportation bill by Republican Roy Blunt, which would expand “conscience protections” in the Affordable Care Act. While Blunt views it as giving religiously affiliated employers the ability to opt out of coverage where they have a moral objection, which has come to the fore recently as part of the birth control debate, Democrats charge that his broadly written bill would allow any employer to opt out of any mandated part of their insurance coverage, simply by claiming a moral objection.
Chuck Schumer, part of the Democratic leadership in the Senate, said that “We’ll hold a vote whenever republicans want.” He added that “it’s not going to be a problem for Democrats, but I think it’ll be a problem for Republicans.”
Republicans have tried to leverage a debate over a new rule from Health and Human Services that provides free birth control coverage as part of a menu of preventive health services. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops and some other religious groups objected to having religiously affiliated institutions like hospitals and universities included in that mandate (churches and some religious non-profits were exempted). The President created a compromise measure that lets women at those institutions who want birth control coverage to contract with the insurance company directly, leaving the institution out of the exchange.
While many Catholic organizations, like the Catholic Hospital Association, supports the compromise, and while polling shows broad support for it as well, Republicans have not relented in their critique. Patty Murray, the head of the campaign arm of Senate Democrats, described this as a deliberate attempt to hype conservative voters. “This is a strategy. They think that the path to victory runs through a women’s health clinic,” Murray said.
Obviously believing that the amendment will be defeated, Senate Democrats relished the challenge, and the ability to put Republicans on the opposite side of women’s health. Barbara Boxer, the head of the Environment and Public Works committee and the manager of the surface transportation bill, didn’t even seem to be interested in a “side-by-side amendment” affirming the President’s compromise or enshrining it into statute (she said “others may offer” such an amendment, but that she would not). This is less about policy than about letting Republicans hang themselves with their retrograde views about birth control.
Blunt has defended his amendment by saying that it merely enshrines religious freedom edicts prevalent in America since the founding. “Have you read the bill,” Murray asked. “This would literally provide every employer in the coutnry the protection to say ‘I don’t want to cover something.” Schumer agreed that this amendment does not affirm the status quo, and that instead it’s “a giant step backwards that we have not seen since Medicare in 1965.”
Added Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, “Senator Blunt is just wrong.”