WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked a bill aimed at restoring free contraception for women who get their health insurance from companies with religious objections, a legislative setback for Democrats that they hope will be a political winner in November’s elections.
The vote was 56-43 to move ahead on the measure, short of the 60 votes necessary to proceed.
Democrats sponsored the election-year bill to reverse last month’s Supreme Court ruling that closely held businesses with religious objections could deny coverage under President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Republicans called the bill a political stunt aimed at helping vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the elections.
Indeed, Democrats have seized on the birth control issue as they look ahead to November with hopes of energizing voters, especially women, to preserve the party’s Senate majority. Democrats must defend more seats, and Republicans are upbeat about their prospects of gaining the six necessary to secure control, especially in GOP-leaning Southern states.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who is in a competitive re-election contest, summed up her party’s argument on the issue.
“A woman’s health care decision should be made with her doctor, with her family, with her faith, not by her employer with her employer’s faith,” Shaheen said in a Senate speech.
But Republicans said that the Democratic effort was merely a move to boost struggling incumbents and that both parties support a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined with two Republican women, Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fischer of Nebraska, in backing separate legislation that would reaffirm current law on access to contraception and in calling for a Food and Drug Administration study on whether contraceptives could be sold over the counter without a prescription.
Three Republicans broke ranks with their party – Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mark Kirk of Illinois – and backed the Democratic-led legislation. In a procedural move, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., switched his vote to no, allowing him to bring the measure up for another vote closer to the election.
All other Democrats backed the bill.
National statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that more than 99 percent of women ages 15 to 44 who have had sexual intercourse have used at least one form of contraception.
“I trust women to make their own health care decisions, and I don’t believe their employers should have a say in them,” said Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, a chief sponsor of the legislation with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Late last month, a deeply divided Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that requiring closely-held companies to pay for various forms of women’s contraception to which they object violates the corporations’ religious freedom. The decision marked the first time the high court had declared that businesses can hold religious views under federal law.
“Five men on the Supreme Court rolled back the clock on women in America,” Murray said.
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