GOP Ripe For Splits In Assault On Birth Control Rule

February 8, 2012 12:58 p.m.

Congressional Republicans’ pledge to mount a legislative push against the Obama administration’s requirement that health insurance plans cover birth control comes with a risk: Alienating their members who have previously pushed or voted to mandate contraception coverage.

Back in 2001, six Republican senators sponsored legislation decreeing that health insurance plans may not “exclude or restrict benefits for prescription contraceptive drugs or devices approved by the Food and Drug Administration.” In other words, they would be required to provide birth control. The bill never made it out of committee, but that wasn’t for a lack of effort from the GOP.

The measure’s lead sponsor was Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and cosponsors included Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME); the other four have since left Congress. Counterpart legislation in the House was introduced by former Rep. James Greenwood (R-PA) and cosponsored by 14 others Republicans including incumbent Rep. Todd Platts (PA) and now-Sen. Mark Kirk (IL).Spokespersons for Snowe and Collins did not respond to TPM’s requests for comment by press time, and the two senators have not weighed in on the controversy thus far.

Republicans have fueled the religious firestorm over the administration’s rule, and said Wednesday that they intend to act to roll it back legislatively if the White House does not reverse course. And while Democratic leaders have sought to downplay their own divisions and portray the GOP push as an attack on women’s health, the controversy has split off some key allies of President Obama including Tim Kaine and fourth-ranking Dem Rep. John Larson (CT).

Behind the political haze is a new poll showing that a majority of the public — including self-identified Catholics — favors the birth control rule when told what it actually entails. It exempts churches and houses of worship that primarily employ persons of the same faith and grants religious nonprofits that employ and serve persons of different beliefs one additional year to begin complying.

Senate GOP leaders took turns bashing the decision Wednesday. “It violates our First Amendment to the constitution,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH). “This is not a women’s rights issue. This is a religious liberty issue.” But Ayotte’s state of New Hampshire already has the same mandate without a religious exemption, and she hasn’t expressed concerns with it. Twenty-seven other states have the same requirement.

For now Republicans have stuck together without any divisions spilling out. But that could change if members are forced to take votes as GOP support for contraception mandates have even been backed by staunch conservatives in the past.

A Republican-led appropriations bill in 2001, passed by a GOP Congress and enacted by President Bush, included a mandate that federal employee health insurance plans include contraception and birth control coverage. The legislation cleared the Senate by a voice vote and passed the House 334-94, winning the votes of incumbent Republicans including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (VA) as well as Sens. Rob Portman (OH), Lindsey Graham (SC), Roger Wicker (MS), Kirk and others.

“The Administration believes that all federal employees should have access to a wide range of health care insurance options, including access to prescription drugs such as contraceptives,” the Bush White House said in a statement at the time, noting that it did not ask for the contraception mandate but wouldn’t object to it either.

Federal employee health plans requirements are, of course, a different animal than mandates for religiously affiliated entities, but enactment of the bill goes to show strong prior GOP support for expanding access to birth control for women.

With the White House struggling to explain its decision and said to be weighing a compromise, Republicans could still gain from the issue in the short-run. But as pro-choice Republicans and GOP strategists warn, the public is becoming more socially liberal and stoking culture wars could ultimately be a bad move for the party.

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