The Senate easily defeated a Republican amendment on Thursday that would have let employers opt out of providing any health care coverage that they say violates their conscience or religious beliefs, agreeing to set it aside by a vote of 51 to 48.
The death of the controversial amendment, offered by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., to transportation legislation, is unlikely to end the acrimonious battle over women’s health. “This fight is not over. I will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of Congress to protect the rights that make our nation great," Blunt said after the vote.
Blunt offered the amendment last month, just before the Obama administration came up with a work-around to rules saying all employers must cover birth control free of cost to women as part of any health insurance offered. Some conservative and religious groups wanted an opt-out for religiously affiliated groups, such as hospitals, but rejected President Obama’s compromise.
Democrats largely have used the issue to say Republicans are restricting women’s access to health care; Republicans say the administration is infringing on religious freedom. The fight has not split purely along party lines, however.
The contraception battle has also dominated the campaign trail. On Wednesday, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said he opposed the Blunt amendment during an interview on the Ohio News Network. His campaign quickly walked back those comments, saying Romney supported the amendment.
Most Republicans aren’t eager to keep focus on a birth control battle that Democrats view as a political winner. Senate GOP leadership aides say they want to turn the focus back to jobs and the economy, using high gas prices as a way to needle Obama.
House Republicans haven’t moved quickly to undo the contraception rule. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has not scheduled a markup of legislation similar to the Blunt amendment, despite House Speaker John Boehner’s pledge to repeal the contraception rule last month.
Senators took to the floor ahead of Thursday's vote to voice their positions on the contraception vote. One surprise came from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who said she would support the Blunt amendment because Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius did not clarify how the rule would apply to religiously affiliated employers who pay for their own health insurance.
“Sadly, the administration once again skirted the answer,” said Collins, whose 2011 voting record National Journal rated most-liberal among Senate Republicans.
Sebelius made an unusual public statement opposing the amendment Wednesday night.
“Any employer could restrict access to any service they say they object to. This is dangerous and wrong,” Sebelius said.
“The Obama administration believes that decisions about medical care should be made by a woman and her doctor, not a woman and her boss. We encourage the Senate to reject this cynical attempt to roll back decades of progress in women’s health.”
Four senators crossed party lines. Democratic Sens. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska voted against tabling the amendment. Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, who announced her retirement on Wednesday, was the only Republican to vote to table the amendment.