Religious freedom from government regulations was once seen as a winning talking point for Republicans. But on the day that a contraception regulation takes effect that several religious groups are challenging in court, Republicans are barely mentioning the topic.
That is a stark contrast to what happened in February, when House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, took to the floor for a rare one-minute speech promising to overturn a rule from the Obama administration requiring employers to pay for birth control for their workers.
“It must not stand and it will not stand,” Boehner said on the House floor. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., along with Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; Roy Blunt, R-Mo.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; and John Thune, R-S.D., quickly joined in on the criticism, saying it was a threat to religious freedom, in a press conference off the Senate floor.
On Wednesday, the health care rule officially goes into effect. Religious groups, particularly Catholic employers, have rejected what the Obama administration called an “accommodation,” which requires insurance companies to pay for birth control and other items if employers have religious objections. But so far, Republicans have not come close to fulfilling Boehner’s promise.
Avoiding the topic of birth control might be a good messaging move for Republicans. Just a week after Republicans targeted the contraception rule, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a now-infamous hearing where Democrats hammered Republicans for having no women testify. A picture from the hearing went viral, helping women’s health and pro-abortion-rights groups raise money and swinging women voters to the Democrats’ column, at least for the time being.
Democrats gleefully celebrated the contraception rule on Tuesday, while hammering their conservative colleagues for instituting a “war on women.” Republicans have been comparatively silent, particularly the GOP leadership in the House and Senate. McConnell started off the day by asking Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for a vote to repeal the entire health care law. But McConnell did not once mention religious freedom or contraception.
“I think given the fact that our friends on the other side are going to focus on that bill this particular week, it might be a good idea to have a vote on it on the pending bill.... Since we’ve spent a good deal of time positioning various and assorted issues, I think it would be appropriate to have a vote on the repeal of Obamacare,” McConnell said. Reid did not agree to hold a vote on the amendment.
Blunt offered an amendment to undo the birth-control rule in March (the Senate voted it down), but he said the Senate should just repeal the whole bill now.
“This issue certainly isn’t over, and the only District Court that has addressed this issue thus far has sided in our favor,” Blunt said in a statement to National Journal. “In the meantime, I believe the majority should allow a vote on this bill as a whole.”
Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said that Republicans shouldn’t be worried about voter backlash.
“I think it’s very legitimate, though, that we would have a response to it, because it’s an attack on religious freedom,” he said in an interview. “You don’t have to worry about backlash on First Amendment rights.”
Grassley said he himself didn’t plan to talk about the rule at any public events.
In the House, Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., a freshman, is heading up a press conference with 20 other members opposing the rule. But Boehner has nothing special lined up on his calendar to oppose the rule. The House never took a vote on similar legislation from Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb.