Can birth-control flap rekindle 'repeal ObamaCare' crusade?

Republicans see the surge in support for religious freedom as an opening to overturn President Obama’s signature health-care reform. Conservatives are not likely to let the issue go lightly.

President Obama’s scramble to revise a controversial health-care mandate eased, but did not end, a sharp clash with Roman Catholic Church leaders that spread to Capitol Hill and beyond.

The fix, announced Friday, shifted the costs of paying for employee birth-control coverage from church-affiliated employers, whose opposition to birth control is a matter of church teaching, to insurance companies. 

But it may not go far enough to satisfy church leaders or Republicans, who see the surge in support for religious freedom as an opening to overturn the president’s signature health-care reform.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) – reportedly blindsided by the Obama administration’s initial mandate, announced on Jan. 20 – called the White House revision “a first step in the right direction,” but not more.

“While there may be an openness to respond to some of our concerns, we reserve judgment on the details until we have them,” said Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, president of USCCB, in a statement Friday.

He added, “The past three weeks have witnessed a remarkable unity of Americans from all religions or none at all worried about the erosion of religious freedom and government intrusion into issues of faith and morals.”

A formidable opponent, the USCCB mobilized churches across the country to lobby Congress and the White House to change the rule. As public pressure mounted, both Catholic leaders and GOP congressional leaders called on the White House not just to revise the rules for church-affiliated groups, but to extend conscience protections to all employers.

It’s a move that the White House fears would open a vast escape clause in the employer mandate, gutting health-care reform.

In a conference call with reporters on Friday, senior administration officials specified that this accommodation applies only to nonprofit religious organizations, like hospitals, charities, and schools – not to private employers.

“The core principle [is] that women who work at these institutions – again, nurses, teachers, doctors, janitors –... be provided the same access to contraceptive services as other employees,” said one official. “We didn’t compromise on that.”

The new policy ensures that when women work for religious employers with objections to providing contraceptive coverage, her insurance company will be required to offer care, free of charge. The policy also deliberately avoids requiring church-affiliated employers from having to refer women to organizations that provide contraception. The policy requires the insurance companies to offer this provision to employees.

But Republicans on Capitol Hill say that the firestorm of protest since the Jan. 20 announcement won’t be quelled by a tweak in the rules for a subset of employers with religious objections. They are calling for new laws to protect religious freedom, including a religious exemption for all employers.

“The Catholic Church and others in our nation’s religious community are not yet convinced the President’s mandate doesn’t constitute an attack on religious freedom,” said Speaker John Boehner, in a statement.

“The President should take up the Bishops’ offer to find a resolution that respects all Americans’ Constitutional rights,” he added. “In the meantime, the House of Representatives, led by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, will continue to work toward a legislative solution that achieves that same goal.”

On the Senate side, Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida said in a statement that the controversy “exemplifies the problem with putting the Federal government in charge of health care, and shows why we must fully repeal ObamaCare.”

Conservatives are fired up over this issue, and not likely to let it go lightly. “What they’re doing is shifting the cost to the insurer, who will shift the cost back to the employer,” says Michael Franc, vice president for government studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

“That won’t quell the protests,” he adds. “It goes way beyond the details of a health-care plan or its mandates. It’s right in that whole area of freedom and what the government can tell you to do or not to do. It’s a very core concern for Republicans.”

Meanwhile, Democrats, deeply divided by the controversy over the mandate, are beginning to regroup in defense of the president and health-care reform. Sen. Bob Casey (D) of Pennsylvania, an early opponent of the new rule, says he is studying it.

In a statement, Senate majority leader Harry Reid said, “I will oppose Republican efforts to move the goalposts on this issue, including their extreme legislation that would allow any employer to deny coverage for a range of critical health services for women based on vaguely defined personal objections.”

He also said, “American women have a right to make their own health decisions, and Democrats will fight to protect that right.”

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