Republicans on Wednesday ramped up their angry attacks on President Barack Obama over a new rule requiring most insurance plans to cover birth control for women over some religious groups' objections.
The almost certainly concerted assault seemed designed to make Obama and his Democratic allies pay a political price -- notably among Catholic swing voters -- in the November elections.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and a small army of conservative activists were demanding that Obama roll back the regulation, charging it violates religious freedom.
Republican Senator John McCain, Obama's defeated rival for the White House in 2008, came out in support of legislation carving out an exemption to the rule for religious-affiliated medical institutions.
In a blistering statement, McCain and fellow Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl charged that the rule "tramples the rights of faith-based organizations by requiring that their employee health insurance plans fully cover the cost of birth control, sterilizations and aborifacients."
"It is reprehensible that this administration shows no respect for those whose conscience would be violated under the new mandate," they said.
US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius rolled out the new rules in late January, saying that "very careful consideration" had been given to "the important concerns some have raised about religious liberty."
The move, brought in under Obama's landmark health care reform law, offers an exemption for churches and other houses of worship.
Other religious groups can qualify for a one-year exemption before they are covered by the new measures until August 2013 when they will have to comply with the law.
Sebelius said when she announced the new procedures that they struck "the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services."
The final rule, which followed an interim decision announced in August 2011, was applauded by women's rights advocates but denounced by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and political conservatives.
Some commentators have suggested any loss of support among Catholics could be balanced by support for the measures among women voters and the young -- a crucial constituency Obama needs to win reelection.