(Reuters) - The Senate narrowly backed a key plank of President Barack Obama's healthcare reform Thursday by rejecting a sweeping Republican measure that would have allowed employers to opt out of birth control coverage and other medical services on moral grounds.
Senators voted 51-48 to set aside a measure proposed by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that would have exempted employers like Catholic hospitals, universities and charities from an Obama healthcare provision that requires most employers to offer free insurance coverage for women's contraceptives.
Democrats and some Republicans had warned that Blunt's Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, introduced as an amendment to an unrelated highway bill, contained language broad enough to deny any number of benefits from prenatal care and childhood vaccinations to cancer screenings including mammograms on the basis of a conscientious objection.
It would allow any employer or insurer to deny coverage for virtually any treatment for virtually any reason, said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who denounced the measure as an extreme, ideological amendment.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, the only Republican to cross party lines and vote against the Blunt amendment, made it clear before the vote that she favored a conscience clause for those opposed to contraceptives but had misgivings about the bill's wording, which did not mention birth control.
The Blunt measure would have amended a section of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that is designed to install national standards for essential healthcare benefits for the first time, including a host of preventive services.
Three Democrats with conservative records on social issues -- Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Robert Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania -- joined Republicans in voting for the amendment.
In an attempt to quell an election-year uproar, Obama announced earlier this year that religiously affiliated employers would not be required to offer free birth control to workers and the onus would instead fall on insurers. The president's accommodation is expected to be formulated into legal language and published as a proposed rule soon.
Neither Obama's gesture, nor Thursday's vote, will likely resolve the controversy, particularly among Catholic authorities who view artificial conception as a sin and want the policy rescinded.
This issue will not go away unless the administration decides to take it away, Blunt said.
POLL FAVORS OBAMA POLICY
A Baptist elected to the Senate in 2010, Blunt built a staunch conservative record on social issues including partial-birth abortion, same-sex marriage and gay adoption during a 14-year career in the House of Representatives. He has earned high ratings from Catholic organizations.
Catholic bishops who are at the forefront of the opposition also described Thursday's outcome as only a temporary setback.
We will not rest until the protection of conscience rights is restored and the First Amendment is returned to its place of respect in the Bill of Rights, said Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., who chairs a committee on religious liberty for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
A Kaiser Family Foundation survey of 1,500 adults released on Thursday showed that nearly two-thirds of Americans favored Obama's policy, including clear majorities of Catholics and evangelicals.
Blunt's amendment was never expected to pass the Democratic-controlled chamber but gave Democrats and Republicans an opportunity for election-year posturing on an incendiary issue that has spawned opposition from Catholics and Protestant evangelicals including a number of opposition lawsuits. In a federal lawsuit in Nebraska, seven U.S. states have joined with Catholic groups and individuals to oppose the rule.
The vote also served as the latest flashpoint in the American culture war between women's healthcare rights and social conservative values that engulfed Susan G. Komen for the Cure in controversy weeks ago when the leading U.S. breast cancer charity said it was cutting funds for Planned Parenthood, an abortion provider. It later rescinded the decision.
Late last year, women's health advocates accused Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of bowing to political pressure from social conservatives for deciding to make the morning-after pill called Plan B One available without a prescription only to women older than 17.
Democrats sought to frame the Blunt amendment as a Republican attack on women's access to healthcare, an argument that lawmakers hoped would appeal to independent women.
Vote down this dangerous measure, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., urged her colleagues. Vote it down. Stand for the women in the families of this nation.
Republicans presented a religious liberty argument that could resonate with Catholics and other social conservatives.
If there is one good thing about this debate, it has given us all an opportunity to reaffirm what we believe as Americans, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said.
Even before the vote got under way, the Obama re-election campaign weighed in with the charge that nearly 80 million women who receive coverage through their employers could lose access to preventive services under the Republican amendment.
A statement from Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said the public could thank Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum for helping to pave the way for this anti-contraception agenda.
The statement also referred to Romney's muddled position on the Blunt amendment.
Romney told an interviewer on Wednesday that I'm not for the bill. Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said later he was confused by the way the question was posed and that Romney supported the amendment because he believes in a conscience exemption in health care for religious institutions and people of faith.
(Additional reporting by Anna Yukhananov in Washington, and Stephanie Simon in Denver; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)