Democrats and Republicans, both eager to rouse their respective political bases in an election year, fought Thursday over President Barack Obama's mandate that health insurers cover the cost of contraceptives. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney lent little clarity to the debate.
Senate Democrats scheduled a vote Thursday on a measure by Republican Sen. Roy Blunt that would allow employers and insurers citing moral or religious grounds to opt out of the requirement under Obama's implementation of the new health care law.
Asked while campaigning in battleground Ohio if he supported Blunt's measure, Romney said in an interview with Ohio News Network, "I'm not for the bill." Later, he issued a statement saying: "Of course I support the Blunt Amendment. I simply misunderstood the question."
Obama's policy decision was rewritten last month under pressure from Catholic bishops and others. It now requires health insurers to cover birth control for employees even of religiously affiliated institutions whose beliefs conflict with contraception. As part of his original health care overhaul, the previous policy required employers providing health care insurance to their workers to cover contraceptives.
The Catholic bishops and many conservatives say that still infringes on religious freedom.
For both parties, the debate and Thursday's Senate vote are intended to rouse their staunchest supporters.
Republicans trying to rally social conservatives said Blunt's amendment would correct what they consider a violation of the right to religious freedom.
"The word contraception is not in (the legislation) because it's not about a specific procedure, it's about a faith principle that the First Amendment guarantees," said Blunt.
Democrats trying to hang onto support from female and independent voters said the amendment was really an effort to erode women's rights generally and access to contraception in particular.
"When the other side tries so hard to claim this debate isn't contraception, that's how you know this debate is precisely about contraception," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
The debate and Romney's remarks did nothing to clarify the broader struggle within the GOP over what kind of conservatism it stands for and who should be the party's presidential nominee in the general election this year.
For months, conservatives in the base of the party have clamored for someone more conservative, alienated in part by the health care law Massachusetts passed while Romney was governor. And on Capitol Hill, Republicans have said they are concerned about how the presidential campaign will affect their efforts to maintain the majority of the House and win a majority of seats in the Senate.
Some Republicans privately grumble that focusing on contraception insurance risks losing focus on the number one concern among voters: the economy.
A majority of Americans support the use of contraceptives. The public is generally in favor of mandating birth control coverage for employees of religiously-affiliated employers, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll February 8-13. The survey found that 61 percent favor the mandate, while 31 percent oppose it. Even Catholics, whose church strongly opposed the recent government mandate, support the requirement about as much as all Americans support it.
Late Wednesday, a slate of Republican centrists appeared uncertain how they would vote on the amendment.
"It's much broader than I could support," Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said on MSNBC just after announcing she was dropping her re-election bid. "I think we should focus on the issue of contraceptives and whether or not it should be included in a health insurance plan, and what requirements there should be."
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