Will Blunt amendment backfire on Republicans?

Republicans cast the Blunt amendment as a fight for religious freedoms, but it put at least one of their own, Sen. Scott Brown, in a tough spot – and he could be crucial to GOP efforts to retake the Senate. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
In this Feb. 28 photo, Sen. Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri talks to reporters following a Republicans strategy session at the Capitol in Washington.

Senate Democrats didn’t want to bring the culture wars to Congress, but on Thursday, some were more than happy that Republicans did. 

The Blunt amendment, which would have allowed employers to opt out of a new federal health-care mandate for their employees if they have religious objections, failed to win the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. The vote was 51 to 48.

Despite the measure’s GOP origins, the vote was in many ways more politically perilous for Republicans than Democrats – and particularly for freshman Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts, who is facing reelection this fall. It was an example of why Congress rarely likes to take on big issues in an election year: Every controversial vote can become a weapon in the hands of an opponent.

On Thursday, some Democrats were just short of gleeful that Republicans had given them this chance.

In a press conference following the vote, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York characterized the measure as so politically odorous that moderate Republican senators “voted for it with clenched teeth.”

The amendment grew as a protest against President Obama’s mandate that all businesses – even ones affiliated with religion – include health-care providers that offer contraception. It would have been appended to a highway bill that had received widespread bipartisan support. 

Republicans characterized the amendment as an issue of religious freedom; Democrats panned is as a war against women.

“You can’t alienate large numbers of Hispanics, large numbers of women, particularly suburban independents, and win elections,” said Senator Schumer.

Senator Brown, who must consider both Catholic voters and the leftward leanings of the Massachusetts electorate, voted in favor of the amendment. Schumer noted, with particular relish, that it would be “hard to defend [the vote] back home, especially in places like New England.”

Brown, a tea party favorite who nearly derailed Mr. Obama’s healthcare legislation by winning a special election for the seat previously held by liberal icon Ted Kennedy, is facing a tough reelection matchup against liberal firebrand and Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren. Brown has tacked to the political middle on a number of issues, most recently writing an op-ed in favor of breaking the “brass ceiling” to allow women to serve on the front lines in war. 

His seat could be pivotal in Republican plans to retake the Senate.
 Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, a centrist who this week announced she will not run for reelection, was the only Republican to vote against the amendment. By contrast, three Democratic senators – Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania – voted with the GOP in favor of the measure.

“It’s very consistent for both Casey and Manchin,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. “They might’ve gotten some trouble if they voted the other way because it would be inconsistent with their previous positions. Not only would they alienate social conservatives, they would also open themselves up to accusations of flip-flopping.” 
 Another Senate Democrat who may have been a candidate for crossing over, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri, flatly responded “no” when asked if it put her in a difficult position politically. 

But Senator McCaskill, one of this election cycle’s most embattled Democratic incumbents, said the issue wouldn’t likely go away.

“It sounds like to me that Republicans want to talk more about this stuff than jobs and our economy,” McCaskill said. 

That, however, is open to question. Speaking from the Senate floor before the vote, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky stopped well short of vowing to fight on for the Blunt amendment in other forms. 

“If there’s one good thing about this debate, it’s that it has given all of us an opportunity to reaffirm what we believe as Americans,” Senator McConnell said. “It gives us an opportunity to stand together and to say, this is what we’re all about.”

After the vote, Sen. Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri, who introduced the amendment, told reporters that his concern with Obama’s healthcare legislation would not fade – but didn’t say exactly where or how he would pursue it. 

“It will not go away. These faith-based institutions will not be willing to change the character of who they are because the administration says you have a year to change your religious views,” Blunt said. Motioning toward the US Supreme Court, he added: “This is a debate that might be settled at that building across the street.”

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