(Photo: REUTERS/Larry Downing)
Some of Capitol Hill's leading Catholic Democrats are breaking with President Obama and arguing that a health care reform rule mandating Catholic hospitals to hand out contraceptives should be removed, if not significantly altered.
"I think the White House made a good decision in including a mandate for contraception coverage in the [health care act] insurance policy," said Obama's former DNC Chairman Tim Kaine, in a WHRV radio interview. "But I think they made a bad decision in not allowing a broad enough religious employer exemption."
Kaine, along with Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey and House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson, are the core of a chorus who are encouraging Obama to find an alternative solution. Other Democrats who have expressed concern include freshman Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois. There are reports that Vice President Joe Biden also agrees with the group but is publicly silent on the issue.
The controversial rule is part of the Democratic health care law and may pose challenges for both the president and congressional Democrats as they face a tough election year. It forces universities and hospitals that are affiliated with religious groups to offer insurance coverage for contraceptives and morning-after pills, despite religious objections to these treatments.
What makes it so controversial is that it denies a religious exemption for Catholic hospitals and other similar institutions, but still exempts clerics and employees within churches and other places of worship.
The issue has split the Democratic Party wide open.
"Let's remember who this controversy is really about – the women of America," said a Feb. 8 op-ed by Sens. Barbara Boxer, Jeanne Shaheen and Patty Murray. "Too many women struggle to pay for birth control… Improving access to birth control is good health policy and good economic policy. The millions of American women who choose to use contraception should not be forced to follow religious doctrine, whether Catholic or non-Catholic."
On Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney reinforced Obama's statement that he would not back down from his goal to provide all women with free contraceptive services. Obama has offered a "compromise" on the issue – giving religious affiliated hospitals a one-year grace period before the law goes into effect.
Besides prominent fellow Democrats, Obama must contend with Catholic leaders, who could influence millions of Americans in a critical election year.
"This was a terribly misguided judgment," Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York said about Obama's decision in a Thursday interview on "CBS This Morning."
Dolan said he met with Obama in the Oval Office late last year and was promised the White House would work with the Catholic Church on a number of issues, including education, health care and charitable work.
"I am hoping that this massive negative reaction to this ruling, I am hoping that he will go back to those assurances that he gave me," Dolan said.
Dolan, who is scheduled to become a cardinal later this month, said Obama called him on Jan. 20 to inform him of his decision. "I expressed to him sincerely my disappointment and my disapproval."
Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner (Ohio), in a rare floor speech, said the rule was "an unambiguous attack on religious freedom in our country." A Catholic himself, Boehner vowed that the House will act if Obama fails to reverse the edict and called on his fellow Democrats to join him as well.