What do you do if your party’s marching behind an issue that your likely nominee for president has a spotty record on?
That conundrum faces most congressional Republicans right now. When it comes to their push to reverse the White House’s mandate to expand access to birth control — which they argue violates religious freedom — Mitt Romney’s record is unfortunate. As governor of Massachusetts, he presided over the same policy critics are now assailing President Obama for: obliging most employers to provide health insurance that includes birth control for their female employees, even if the employer belongs to a religion that opposes those services. Indeed, because of the White House’s compromise, which would allow religious nonprofits to opt out of paying the insurer for those services and demand that the insurer offer them to the female employee directly, Romney’s law was arguably even stronger.
On Wednesday more than two-dozen Republican lawmakers ran into this issue head-on. They gathered together in the Capitol to fulminate against President Obama’s egregious violation of religious freedom. But none of them would rule out supporting a presidential candidate who had enacted a virtually identical mandate.
The lawmakers called the press conference to roll out the “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act,” sponsored by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), a House version of the Roy Blunt bill. It’s aimed at making sure no objecting employer has to cover contraception in their health care plan (although it goes beyond that and lets them omit other services too).
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL), a GOP leadership member, warned that the mandate will “reach in and manipulate the conscience of Americans.” He accused the President of “trampling precious First Amendment rights.”
After about 10 of them took turns issuing similar missives against the mandate, while dismissing Obama’s religious accommodation as a gimmick, I put the question to them: Would any of you refuse to support a presidential candidate who enacted a similar mandate?
There were uncomfortable smiles across the stage. “Somebody else want to do that?” asked Fortenberry, stepping aside from the podium and looking around at his colleagues as they let out a mixture of laughs and groans. A few seconds went by and none volunteered.
“Would anybody be willing to rule that out?” I pressed.
“We’re focused on this,” said Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH).
“The bill before us…” one of her colleagues began and was cut off. “Don’t try to distract!”
“That’s not the issue!” declared Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) in an indignant tone.
Fortenberry then took the mic and addressed the question… sort of.
“This is a legislative initiative that we’re trying to undertake,” he said. “Of course, we’d like our eventual nominee — but this is a bipartisan bill. I mean, I would hope that people who are cosponsors of this bill would urge President Obama to sign this because he has stated that he supports the principles of religious liberty. And so I think he should be comfortable with this measure.”
The scene illustrates the awkwardness of the GOP going guns-blazing against Obama’s birth control requirement when their likely nominee for President this year codified the same mandate — arguably a broader one — in his Massachusetts health care plan.
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.