WASHINGTON, Feb 15 (Reuters) - The Democratic-led U.S.
Senate is expected reject as early as Thursday a largely
symbolic Republican challenge to a White House rule guaranteeing
free birth control for women who work for religiously affiliated
Even Senate defeat of the legislation would allow Republican
lawmakers to take a stand in a rancorous election year debate
over a policy that is vehemently opposed by social conservatives
and Roman Catholic bishops.
An aide to the Senate Democratic leadership said the measure
introduced by Republican Roy Blunt could be voted on Thursday,
but also held out the possibility of action near the end of the
month when Congress returns from a week-long break.
The Department of Health and Human Services announced in
January that employers including those with religious
affiliations -- such as universities, charities and hospitals --
would have to provide free birth control coverage for women
enrolled in their health plans. Church employees are exempt from
The healthcare overhaul enacted as the centerpiece of
President Barack Obama's domestic agenda mandates free birth
control. The law is already facing major legal, legislative and
The birth control coverage requirement infuriated Catholic
leaders, who condemned the rule as a violation of constitutional
religious freedoms. The White House responded last Friday with a
compromise that shifted the onus for providing birth control
coverage to insurance companies instead.
But much of the opposition remained. Blunt's bill would
exempt employers from providing health benefits that conflict
with "beliefs and moral convictions."
Democrats including California Senator Barbara Boxer
denounced the measure as too broad, saying it could allow
potentially any employer to deny additional types of health
insurance coverage on moral grounds.
"This is unequivocally false," Blunt's office said in a
Blunt maintains that his legislation, which is expected to
be introduced as an amendment to a bill to upgrade roads and
bridges, simply enforces longstanding "conscience protections."
"Federal courts are well equipped to identify spurious
claims," his office said.
(Reporting By David Morgan and Thomas Ferraro; Editing by
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