Blunt Amendment on Contraception Coverage Killed in Senate

  @DanRivoli on March 01 2012 12:37 PM

Senate Democrats Thursday beat back an effort from Republicans to allow employers and insurance companies to deny certain coverage for moral reasons.

The Senate battle royale over women's health, insurance and religious beliefs ended with Sen. Roy Blunt's eponymous amendment to a transportation funding bill being tabled by a 51 - 48 vote, mainly on party lines.

Before the vote, senators spent the morning on the floor delivering fiery speeches, decrying the other side of playing political games, holding up an important job-creating transportation bill, and even failing to understand what the amendment would actually do.

The Blunt amendment would, under the Affordable Care Act, let any employer or insurance company meet requirements for providing essential health benefits package if they have a moral or religious objection to a covered service.

This is the Republicans' answer to a proposed rule drafted under President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act that would require religiously-affiliated institutions like Catholic hospitals -- not actual churches or places of worship -- to provide employees insurance plans that cover basic preventative care, like birth control.

After Catholic bishops objected, Obama announced a compromise allowing employees to get free contraception directly from the insurance companies. The compromise did not sit too well with Bishops, leading Blunt to introduce his bill.

Senators in both parties were eager to see a vote on the Republicans' amendment, each side believing they had the winning side going into the 2012 elections. Democrats believe the amendment is a GOP overreach on birth control and contraception, an issue immensly popular among women and young voters. Republicans, meanwhile, say insurance mandate is further proof of the Obama administration forcing religious people to stop abiding by their beliefs or pay a fine.

Senators' Heated Debate

Blunt, a first-term Missouri senator, lambasted his Democratic colleagues who said thousands of women in their states would be denied free access to preventative care, including birth control.

He maintained state and federal laws requiring insurance plans to meet certain requirements would still be in effect if his amendment was law. Further, every service uncovered because of a religious objection would be made up by including another service of comparable value.

The world doesn't change, he said.

If they're not allowed to exclude it, he said of insurance plans, they're still not allowed to exclude it under this amendment.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah was perhaps the most agitated when discussing this amendment, which he believes has been mischaracterized.

This is discrimination, masquerading as compassion, he said, referring to critics of the amendment. Those of you who vote against this amendment are playing with fire. Those of you who vote against this amendment are violating the constitution and those of you who vote against this amendment are wrong.

Democrats, meanwhile, were incensed that they were even debating this kind of amendment, which Republicans wanted attached to a transportation funding bill.

Michael Bennett of Colorado, a first-term Democrat, said contraception was the least of his constituents' worries, whether they were in Colorado's Republican strongholds or Democratic areas.

We sit here and wonder why the United States Congress is stuck at an approval rating of 11 percent, Bennet said. Maybe it's because we're talking about contraception in the context of a transportation bill.

Sen. John Kerry, the senior senator from Massachusetts, likened the Blunt amendment to a Pandora's box that will give legal cover for companies that want to deny prenatal care to single mothers or unmarried couples; vaccination for children; or HIV/AIDS treatment and services because of its history and reputation as a gay disease.

There's all kinds of mischief that could be implemented, he said, because of an assertion of people's belief not covered by the First Amendment.

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