Catholic furor over birth control rule turns Democrats on one another

The Catholic Church's anger over a proposed federal rule to force church-affiliated organizations to offer health plans covering birth control has provided Republicans with an opportunity – and Democrats with a problem. 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York, a Catholic, has backed the proposed rule that would force Catholic church-affiliated organizations to offer health plans that cover birth control. But other Catholic Democrats have asked President Obama to back off the rule.

So what does contraception at a Catholic hospital or college have to do with a $109 billion highway bill?

Nothing, it would seem.  

But US senators can propose amendments on any subject. And the Obama administration’s proposed rule requiring church-affiliated organizations to provide health insurance that covers contraception has turned toxic.

It has thrown the White House back on defense after a rare spike of good economic news. It’s also dividing Democratic ranks at a time when both the White House and top Democratic leaders are urging a display of unity.

And that brings us back to the highway bill.

Senate Republicans wanted to get a vote on the matter as soon as possible. The amendment, proposed by Rep. Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri, would allow employers the right to provide employees with health coverage “consistent with their religious beliefs and moral convictions,” without risk of federal penalties.

“This bill would just simply say that those health-care providers don’t have to follow that mandate if it violates their faith principles,” said Senator Blunt in a floor speech on Thursday.

The measure, cosponsored by Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, prompted an objection by Senate majority leader Harry Reid, which blocked a floor vote.

“Republicans never lose an opportunity to mess up a good piece of legislation,” he said.

“They’re talking about a First Amendment right and I appreciate that,… but there’s no final rule," he said, suggesting that the rule is not yet set in stone. "Why don’t we just calm down and see what the final rule is.”

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is not waiting. The USCCB, which initially opposed the health-care reform bill in 2010 in the fear that abortions could be federally funded, has called on Catholics across the nation to write to their elected representatives to protest the proposed rule.

“Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience,” said USCCB President and Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan.

On Wednesday, Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio pledged to overturn the rule.

While some Roman Catholic Democrats, such as Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, have called on the White House to back off the proposed rule, others – also Roman Catholics – are rallying around the president.

“I am dumbfounded that in the year 2012 we still have to fight over birth control,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York, in a statement on Thursday.

“It is sad that we have to stand here yet again to fight back against another overreach and intrusion into women’s lives. This is what it is – a political overreach to roll back access to birth control – not a religious issue,” she added. 

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