Schisms are emerging within the Republican Party after President Obama’s announcement last Friday that he would tweak his contraception mandate to ensure that religious nonprofits aren’t forced to pay for an employee’s birth control coverage. And as GOP leaders push to repeal the requirement entirely, the White House is welcoming that battle.
The shift is looking like an act of political jujitsu as Obama has not only unified his base but splintered the GOP coalition, which initially appeared united against the President’s rule. Obama won over the Democrats and moderate Catholics who criticized him, while maintaining the support of those who backed the original rule. As an added bonus, he has turned some Republicans who initially opposed his policy against their own leaders.
Splitting from their party leaders are Maine Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both of whom criticized the earlier regulation but praised the shift in carefully-worded statements. Neither would say whether they supported an amendment by their Senate colleague Roy Blunt (MO), which would fully reverse the requirement.
“While I will carefully review the details of the President’s revised proposal, it appears to be a step in the right direction,” Collins said. “The Administration has finally listened to the concerns raised by many and appears to be seeking to avoid the threat to religious liberties posed by its original plan.”
“It appears that changes have been made that provide women’s health services without compelling Catholic organizations in particular to violate the beliefs and tenets of their faith,” Snowe told the Portland Herald Tribune. “According to the Catholic Health Association, the administration ‘responded to the issues [they] identified that needed to be fixed,’ which is what I urged the president to do in addressing this situation.”
Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) supports the Blunt amendment, his office said, but he hasn’t found much to criticize in the President’s new policy. “Senator Brown appreciates President Obama’s willingness to revisit this issue, and is reviewing the details of the new proposal,” his spokesman John Donnelly told TPM.
These remarks are a far cry away from top Republicans, who strenuously object to the new rule and say it continues to violate basic religious freedoms. House and Senate GOP leaders said after the Friday announcement that they will keep pushing for legislation to scrap the requirement to cover birth control without co-pays for all employers.
Sen. Roy Blunt (MO), a GOP leadership member and sponsor of the amendment, took to the Heritage Foundation on Monday to dismiss the tweak as an “accounting trick” that doesn’t address religious concerns, declaring in a speech, “it’s not even a distinction without a difference. There is no difference.”
He vowed that the battle would go on “unless the president totally changes his position.” Like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) did the day before, Blunt tried to frame the issue as a battle of religious liberty, not contraception — presumably because the public is strongly supportive of contraception and expanding access to free birth control.
Despite their divisions, Republicans have decided not to back down from the fight now. An added benefit of keeping the heat on Obama over contraception is that it could mobilize evangelicals, a powerful GOP constituency, ahead of the November elections. But a culture war over contraception is as likely to alienate moderate voters and young people.
And it’s shaping up to be a real battle with the White House, which is adopting a bring-it-on attitude. The GOP measures, spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Monday, “would give any employer the right to deny the women who work for them contraceptive coverage. That’s dangerous and it is wrong. And we oppose that.”
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.