Senate Republicans voted overwhelmingly Thursday in favor of a measure that would permit any employer to deny services in their health plan, such as birth control, that they deem morally objectionable. The amendment offered by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) was struck down 51-48 in a motion to table, thanks to virulent opposition by Democrats and one GOP holdout. Democrats are eager to hang the vote around the GOP’s neck in the upcoming elections.
The only Republican who crossed over to help kill the measure, which was aimed at repealing the Obama administration’s birth control mandate, was retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe (ME). Dems are defending 23 Senate seats in the November elections, and running against a GOP they can portray as anti-birth control could help them in some tough races. Democrats are salivating at the prospect of using the votes of vulnerable members, including GOP Sens. Scott Brown (MA) and Dean Heller (NV), against them this year.
Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson (NE), Joe Manchin (WV) and Bob Casey (PA) voted with Republicans for the Blunt measure, which the GOP sought to attach to the otherwise bipartisan highway bill. Casey is facing a tough reelection battle this fall.
The close vote masks the GOP concerns about this issue. It was Democrats who forced Republicans to vote on the measure — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) filed the motion to table it himself — and GOP leaders responded by vigorously whipping members for it. A Dem aide told TPM that Republicans, after initially lighting a fire under the issue, saw political danger in their stance and were eager to backtrack. A GOP staffer refuted that characterization.
Both sides sought to frame the issue to their advantage, with Republicans insisting the amendment was crucial to maintaining religious freedom, and Democrats saying the vote was really about women’s health.
“If Democrats no longer see the value in defending the First Amendment because they don’t think it’s politically expedient to do so, or because they want to protect the President, then Republicans will have to do it for them,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said on the Senate floor ahead of the vote. “Please do not allow this abominable policy to stand.”
After the vote, Blunt vowed to continue the battle, while Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) decried the GOP push as “shameful, but not surprising.”
“Women and families across America can breathe a sigh of relief that this radical amendment was blocked by Senate Democrats today,” she said.
Democrats say the religious freedom concerns mask the real issue — women’s health. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) dubbed the Blunt amendment a “contraception ban” that forces women to surrender health decisions to their employers. “So let’s admit what this debate is really and what Republicans really want to take away from millions of American women,” Schumer said. “It is contraception.”
Expect much more along those lines from Dems as the elections draw nearer.
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.