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February 15, 2012

Blunt leading opposition in contraception debate

It appears that Sen. Roy Blunt will get a vote on his measure that would allow insurance companies and other businesses to ignore federally-mandated birth control coverage as part of the health care law.

After rejecting the Missouri Republican’s amendment last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that he would allow it to come to the floor. It will likely be attached to some other bill, but which one and when it will come up for debate is uncertain.

Blunt waded into the heated contraception controversy last week after the White House had to backtrack on its policy of requiring religious institutions – including Catholic hospitals and other church-affiliated operations - to pay for birth control services. Caught off guard by the strong negative reaction from some quarters, the Obama administration quickly modified the rule, shifting the burden of payment to insurance companies.

But Catholic bishops, who at first sounded somewhat receptive to the idea, rejected the new plan, as did Blunt. In a speech this week at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy think tank, he said the issue was not about money.

“If you're opposed to something because it costs money, that's different from being opposed to it because you have a moral objection to it or a faith-based objection to it," he said. "This is about faith. It's not about cost…What has to be protected here is the faith-based rights of conscience. That's what this debate is about."

Blunt is not new to this arena. He offered a bill last summer that sought to squash regulations in the health care law, such as the contraception provision, which could raise objections of conscience.

But the issue has quickly become a political firestorm. While most Democrats and allied women's groups have lined up behind the president, the administration took some hits for its poor political strategy, particularly on an issue that evokes powerful passions on both sides.

Republicans are in near unity against both the original contraception coverage policy and the revised version, even though polls show that the public appears to support such coverage and is not nearly as upset.

A recent Fox News survey found that 61 percent of the public believe that private employer health plans should cover birth control services for women, compared to 34 percent that disagreed. In a CBS News/New York Times poll that specifically asked whether religious institutions, such as hospitals and universities, should offer the coverage in their health plans, 61 percent agreed and 31 did not.

In addition, a Gallup survey said that the contraception debate has not changed the way Catholics view the president. The Pew Research Center found that the controversy has stoked each party's base, but has had little impact beyond that.


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"Planet Washington" covers politics and government. It is written by journalists in McClatchy's Washington Bureau.

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