Harry Reid has scheduled a vote on the Blunt amendment, which would allow employers to refuse insurance mandates on virtually any medical service simply by stating a moral objection to the practice, for tomorrow. Reid actually introduced the amendment himself when the Republicans wouldn’t:
“We’re having our usual productive time in the Senate. Monday, no votes. Tuesday, no votes. Wednesday, no votes,” he said. “But I’ll tell you, we’re going to have a great Thursday morning. I finally figured out a way to — [the Republicans have] been stalling for a long time, since February 7, when we tried to move the highway bill. They’ve been holding this up because of contraception. They wouldn’t bring it up, couldn’t work anything out. So I did. I filed the — I brought the amendment up myself, and we’re going to vote on that on Thursday and get rid of that, and we’ll be able to do a highway bill. So, you guys, thank you very much for all you do.”
This forces everyone in the Senate to take a stand on allowing employers to impose their personal beliefs to deny medical procedures for their employees, even if they don’t share those beliefs. And at first, it appeared that Republicans would run scared from this thing. Certainly a couple female members of the Republican caucus appear opposed to the measure:
On MSBNC just now, Senator Olympia Snowe confirmed she’ll oppose the measure, echoing the Dem argument against it: “It’s much broader than I could support.” Snowe announced yesterday that she’s retiring out of frustration over “partisanship,” which has led to some (unconfirmed) speculation among Democratic aides that the Blunt amendment is one reason why.
Senator Dean Heller’s campaign has said he hasn’t yet taken a position. Senator Lisa Murkowski appears to be undecided, but the quote she gave to the New York Times suggests she’s pretty irked over having to deal with this right now. “I don’t know where we are going with this issue,” she said. “We’ve got way too much else to be doing.”
But this is not uniform. In fact, Democrat Joe Manchin, who will seek re-election in the fall, plans to vote for the Blunt Amendment:
“While I would have preferred that both sides would have come together around a solution like we had in West Virginia, I am voting in favor of this measure to protect the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America,” Manchin said in a statement.
Manchin also notes that in his home state, West Virginia law requires contraceptive coverage but also guarantees “religious freedom for employers or institutions that object to such services.” The law requires health insurance companies to also provide contraceptive care but exempts religious institutions that object based on “religious tenets.”
This suggests the limits of just making this about contraception. The truth is that the religious freedom issue is as much on the Democratic side as it is on the Republican side. Under the Blunt Amendment, a women working for a religious man who decides that pap smears are unclean, or that vaccinations violate his religious precepts, will have that coverage banned for her, regardless of her own views. That’s a serious religious freedom issue, and it’s a side of this that has not at all been hammered home. Indeed, this may be why Rep. Kathy Hochul, who won a special election in a right-leaning district back in 2011, got roundly booed talking about the contraceptive mandate in a town hall. Right now, only Republicans are owning the religious freedom aspect of this issue, and playing upon the familiar themes of discomfort with mandates and big government. Contraception should not be a controversial issue at all, and the revelation that Democrats have delivered free preventive services like this in the health care law will garner some support. But they’ve framed it quite narrowly, and that’s why it’s not an unqualified win.
The House may be treading lightly on this bill, but the confrontation in the Senate is more complicated than it appears.
UPDATE: Wow, Mitt Romney just threw most of the Senate Republican caucus under the bus on this. I guess he must think he’s got the nomination wrapped up.
UPDATE II: OK, Romney cleaned it up.