Sensing a political upper-hand in the brewing culture war, Senate Democrats had their guns blazing against the GOP’s birth control amendment Tuesday, vowing to fight Republicans’ best efforts to tack it on to the bipartisan highway bill and warning that the measure would take women’s health in America back to the “dark ages.”
“In 2012, I stand here in complete amazement,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), “that in a country known for its medical breakthroughs and advancements, Republicans would have us go back to the medical dark ages.” She said the energy and transportation bill otherwise has strong bipartisan support, and deemed the contraception amendment both a poison pill and irrelevant.
The amendment by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) purports to focus on contraception, but it goes well beyond that. As written, it would permit all employers to deny any health services in their insurance plans that aren’t in accordance with their “religious beliefs and moral convictions.” The measure states no limitations or criteria, which means employers have free rein to decide what medical care their employees may or may not receive.
Boxer, who chairs the committee with jurisdiction, said Democrats have been told that GOP lawmakers will continue to demand its inclusion. A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has championed the amendment, confirmed that it has been filed and will be pending if Dems give consent.
“I’d like to get it on a bill the President has to sign,” Blunt told TPM on Tuesday. “But I’d also like to see it debated and voted on, and so we’ll just see how that goes.”
Quoting a line from Jon Stewart, Boxer grimly jested that if the amendment passes, employers with a moral conviction that laughter is the best medicine can deny their workers access to life-saving treatments, and instead tell them jokes.
“We didn’t just magically go back 50 years in time when limitations on women’s access to contraception like this were commonplace. But make no mistake, that amendment would take us back there,” Sen. Patty Murray (WA), a member of the Democratic leadership, told reporters. “It is extreme. It is dangerous… We are not going allow the clock to be turned back decades on American women.”
Blunt defended his amendment against the Democrats’ attacks in a huddle with reporters, declaring that if it passes, “there is no right that any American would have that they haven’t had for the first 225 years of Constitutional history.”
Flanked by Catholic Bishops who oppose Obama’s new rule, Republicans have tried to paint the amendment as one that restores religious freedom and scraps onerous mandates in the Affordable Care Act. The aim is to continue trying to paint Obama as anti-religion. It also helps divert attention from the improving economy and the payroll tax cut debate, neither of which are shaking out to be politically advantageous for the GOP.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) twice used the made-up phrase “male-igarchy” and “men’s club” to bash the Blunt amendment as an attack on women’s health. He and his colleagues accused congressional Republicans of taking cues from surging presidential contender Rick Santorum, who as recently as last Fall said the use of contraception in and of itself is “not okay.”
House Republicans haven’t insisted on attaching a Blunt-like amendment to the highway bill, but Senate Democrats know fully well they can quash it in their chamber. In many ways it would suit them to have a debate about birth control coverage as polls show them continuing to be on the right side of public opinion, even after the GOP offensive of the past few days.
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.