GOP Struggles To Contain Birth Control Fallout

March 1, 2012 12:45 a.m.

Top Republicans are working overtime to mask palpable concern within their party over a Thursday Senate vote to roll back an Obama administration rule requiring most employers to provide workers with contraceptive coverage in their health benefits.

Yet despite a growing sense that the GOP has veered into politically dangerous territory, a full-scale retreat would embarrass the party, and alienate a powerful segment of its conservative base. And that’s left Republicans little choice but to press ahead, illustrating the dangers they’ll face if election year politicking turns further from the economy toward culture war fights that voters thought were settled decades ago.

The measure in question was authored by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) — a member of the GOP’s leadership team — and would allow employers who provide health benefits to deny coverage of particular services — including contraception — for reasons of conscience. Blunt introduced the legislation at the height of the contretemps over the Obama administration’s contraception rule, and Republicans pushed hard to secure a vote for it as an amendment to an unrelated transportation bill. But according to a top Democratic aide briefed on negotiations between Republican and Democratic leaders, something changed in recent days — and in the end Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) took it upon himself to force the issue.“They were pushing for it, but once they realized what a disaster it was turning into they started trying to walk it back,” the aide said. “They started making rumblings that they wanted to change and moderate it, which is why Reid went ahead and filed it as is.”

Late Wednesady, on the Senate floor, Reid hinted at the GOP’s dilemma. “Yesterday I had to bring up a Republican amendment that they didn’t even bother to file, they just wanted to talk about it and hold press conferences on this issue.”

A GOP leadership aide strongly disputed this characterization, noting that Blunt himself filed the amendment, and that Reid merely made it the Senate’s pending business as a courtesy. “[T]he Majority Leader often offers amendments on behalf of other Senators–of both parties. And I appreciate the Majority Leader pointing out that Republicans insisted on having this vote. As everyone saw from the floor speeches [Wednesday], there is significant interest in protecting religious liberty despite the President’s health care bill’s mandate.”

But while a number of GOP senators did indeed take to the floor in support of the Blunt amendment Wednesday, other, more moderate members of the conference either publicly broke ranks, or decided to keep their heads down. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) expressed her unease, saying, “I don’t know where we are going with this issue.” Retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) announced her intent to vote no. A handful of likeminded GOP senators have tiptoed around the issue.

Republican aides privately say the cause is not an ideal point of focus, an admission evinced by the GOP’s recent messaging blitz on fuel prices. And while some of them still believe they can reframe the debate to their advantage — by characterizing it, as the GOP leadership aide did, as a defense of religious liberty — they’re wary of the risks.

Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-NY) summed up the reason for this strategy when she said, “If it’s made a contraception issue, they’ll win.”

Democrats have no intention of letting them get off that easy.

In a stretch, the party’s top messaging guru Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY) dubbed the Blunt amendment a “contraception ban” on the Senate floor and accused the GOP of wanting to take America “back to the 19th century.”

“This measure would force women to surrender control of their own health decisions to their bosses,” he said. “So let’s admit what this debate is really and what Republicans really want to take away from millions of American women. It is contraception.”

The Democratic aide summed it up, “They don’t get off the hook just because they realized the policy they embraced with both arms is hugely unpopular.”

GOP operatives are especially glum about the public perception that this battle could create. “Republicans being against sex is not good,” the veteran Republican strategist Alex Castellanos told New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. “Sex is popular.”

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