(Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
The U.S. Senate rejected a GOP amendment on Thursday that would have overridden President Obama's mandate that most employers, including religious nonprofits, and all insurers provide free contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs for women. The measure failed by a 51-48 vote.
"Today the Senate failed to defend the conscience rights of millions of Americans that are being trampled upon by Obamacare," said Marjorie Dannenfelser of Susan B. Anthony List in a written statement. "Americans do not wish to be forced to pay for abortion-inducing drugs by unelected bureaucrats in Washington. There will be consequences in November for Senators in tight races who voted to kill this amendment with the absurd reasoning that they are acting in the best interests of women. Undermining the religious liberty and conscience rights of women can never serve them."
The two sides came at the issue from different angles, both geared toward winning votes for November's congressional and presidential races. Democrats argue that birth control should be available at low or no cost to all women. Republicans countered, saying issues of religious liberty should take precedence.
GOP Senator Roy Blunt introduced the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act that would allow employers to decline coverage of services (such as contraception, sterilization and abortifacients) that are contrary to their religious beliefs.
The White House had reaffirmed the contraception mandate this year. Responding to outrage from Catholics and evangelicals, President Obama later tweaked it to require insurance companies, not the religious organizations, to provide the services to employees at no cost. Critics say the new plan changes nothing as religious institutions continue to see their religious freedoms threatened.
"The fact remains that this provision would simply preserve the fundamental religious freedom that we enjoy today. For the first time in our history, the Obama Administration's health care mandate is an egregious violation of our First Amendment rights," Blunt said Thursday after the vote.
Since the president introduced the mandate in January, Republicans have argued that rights of conscience and religious freedom should be a primary consideration when imposing mandates on employers and insurance companies.
Democrats, on the other hand, have said that women's access to health care should be the top priority and that Republicans are trying to limit such access, especially to those who are the most vulnerable because of economic and social circumstances.
"America's women refuse to accept this unconstitutional government order," said Penny Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for America. The Obama Administration's HHS Mandate demolishes our constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion and conscience rights."
"Churches, religious organizations, and people of faith and conscience must have the right to choose their own health care and make their own moral decisions without having to submit to the one size fits all policies of President Obama and Secretary Sebelius' oppressive federal bureaucracy," Nance said.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), told reporters that Thursday's vote will be "very helpful" to Democrats in November, when discussing his party's stance. "Ours is a mainstream position shared by not only Democrats but many independents."
GOP Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma disagrees with his Democrat colleague, saying instead that the issue would bode well for Republicans.
"It's going to markedly increase [voter] turnout among religious voters for Republican candidates in November," Coburn told Bloomberg.
But retiring Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine will not be voting with her party. "It's much broader than I could support," she told MSNBC just after announcing her decision not to seek reelection. "I think we should focus on the issue of contraceptives and whether or not it should be included in a health insurance plan and what requirements there should be."