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Health Care / ANALYSIS

How Contraception Became A Train Wreck For Republicans

Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke. (Courtesy of Nancy Pelosi's Office)

photo of Meghan McCarthy
March 4, 2012

CORRECTED: the original version of this article misspelled the name of Barry Lynn, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in the 8th and 9th paragraphs.

When the Obama administration made the controversial decision in January to require all employers to cover birth control free of cost to women—in spite of staunch opposition from conservative and religious groups—Republicans thought they could use it to reinforce their message on the health reform law: it was an unprecedented government intrusion into American freedoms.

The Obama administration released its rule to require all employers, including religiously affiliated organizations, to cover the birth control free of cost on January 20. Scenting a political win, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made a coordinated push to force the issue into the spotlight on Capitol Hill three weeks later. Boehner made a rare floor speech on the rule; McConnell followed with an off-the-Senate-floor press conference.


"If the president does not reverse the [Health and Human Services] Department’s attack on religious freedom, then the Congress, acting on behalf of the American people and the Constitution we are sworn to uphold and defend, must," Boehner said.

Boehner might wish he could take those words back now.  Three weeks later and the House has not moved to undo the rule and it doesn’t look likely to happen soon. Instead, Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel is issuing statements saying the speaker believes Rush Limbaugh, the feared conservative commentator, made “inappropriate” comments about Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University Law School student who has become Democrats’ face of the contraception battle.

This public relations train wreck for Republicans came at the worst possible time for the sometimes front-runner in their presidential primary race, Mitt Romney. The Massachusetts Republican is struggling to prove his conservative credentials while maintaining his electability in the general contest. Talking about contraception is not an easy way to do that. It forced Romney to make a misstep after a week of gaffes, first saying he opposed legislation to undo the contraception rule. Hours later his campaign reversed his position.

After the White House made an “accommodation” to the original rule, Republicans still believed they could score political points. Technically they could be right: the legality of the contraception rule will likely be decided in court.

But it is impossible to talk about religious freedom in this case without getting into topics that are difficult for the mostly male, mostly white and mostly older Republican members of Congress to broach: pregnancy, sex, and women’s health.

The beginning of the end was the now infamous all-male panel at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on February 16. Democrats originally wanted to have a male witness testify on that panel as well: Barry Lynn, the executive director of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., accepted Lynn as a witness, and even sent him an official invite to testify on February 15.

Issa, however, told Democrats their other witness, Sandra Fluke, could not testify because she lacked expertise in questions of religious freedoms under federal law.  Democrats typically get only one witness, according to Issa’s staff. At 4:18 p.m. the day before the hearing, Democrats responded to Issa’s staff saying the one witness they wanted was Sandra Fluke, not Barry Lynn, according to Issa’s staff.  Issa refused.

By that point, Democrats clearly realized they had a political gold mine. At 7:07 p.m., less than three hours after Democratic staff said they did not want Lynn testifying, staff for House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah Cummings posted a letter to Issa complaining that there were no women on the panel.

“You also failed to invite any women to testify about the negative impact that restrictive insurance coverage has on them,” Cummings wrote.

Issa didn’t budge. The hearing became a media circus, with Planned Parenthood and other women’s health groups helping the photograph of the all-male panel go viral. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi kept the focus on the issue while Congress was on recess the following week, calling a hearing at which Sandra Fluke was the sole witness.

Before Congress left for President’s Day weekend, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., had offered an amendment to a highway bill that would undo the contraception rule and allow employers to object to providing health insurance covering anything they find immoral.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., originally objected to voting on the amendment. But once the tides turned in the Democrats’ favor, Reid set up a Senate vote for Thursday, which happened to fall right before the February filing deadline for the Federal Elections Commission.

In the days leading up to the vote, Senate Democrats took every opportunity they could to hold news conferences on the Blunt amendment, led by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Senate Republicans stuck to the Senate floor to push their points with far less enthusiasm than their “friends” across the aisle.

Meanwhile, Democrats were raking in the dough for House races—Rep. Steve Israel of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said online fundraising had “shattered every record,” bringing in $650,000. Democrats nearly tripled online fundraising in February for Senate races as compared to 2010. Neither fundraising arm for the Republicans in House or Senate races has made any such bold statement.

By the time Thursday’s vote came, Republicans were beaten down. They agreed to a procedural vote that allowed Democrats to win with just a majority of those present and voting, far short of the typical 60 votes that are needed to pass anything in the Senate. It also gave vulnerable Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania political cover by allowing them to vote with Republicans.

It was Democrats who took the victory lap after the vote closed with a predictable Democratic win. Republicans stayed mum.

But the blows kept coming. Hours after Steel said Limbaugh’s comments were inappropriate on Friday, the news broke that President Obama himself had called Fluke to offer his support. Then on Sunday, Limbaugh said he regretted his comments, without completely backing down.

The president should probably also offer his thanks.  It’s all been one big victory.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified Americans United for Separation of Church and State Executive Director Barry Lynn.

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