Has Obama Cornered Republicans On Contraception?

February 13, 2012 12:47 a.m.

Republicans are doubling down in their assault on President Obama’s birth control requirement, insisting that his accommodation of religious nonprofits does not address religious concerns. But by attempting to keep the heat on Obama, the GOP might be diving head-first into a culture war over contraception that social conservatives lost long ago in the minds of the public.

Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said the House will push to repeal the rule entirely, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said Republicans will force a vote on legislation permitting any employer to deny birth control coverage in their health insurance plan by claiming a moral or religious objection. “This issue will not go away until the administration simply backs down,” McConnell said Sunday on CBS’ Face The Nation.Obama’s new policy permits religious nonprofits such as universities, charities and hospitals to opt out of the requirement and instead force the insurance company to pay for their employee’s contraception. (Churches were always exempt.) Republicans dismiss that as a gimmick and not good enough. Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel called on Obama to “take up the Bishops’ offer to find a resolution that respects all Americans’ Constitutional rights.”

The GOP persistence could come at a cost, as the new rule bolsters Democrats’ efforts to portray the freakout over religious freedom as a Trojan horse for restricting access to contraception generally. If Dems succeed in that effort, it’s an easy battle to win: Americans overwhelmingly believe contraception is morally acceptable, according to a litany of surveys, and even a majority of Catholics agree that insurance plans should be forced to cover free birth control.

Some Republicans want to wage that battle regardless. Surging GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum told the blog CaffeinatedThoughts.com back in October that contraception is “not okay,” and called it “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” Rep. Steve King (R-IA) likened birth control to abortion Friday on MSNBC and said he isn’t convinced contraception helps prevent pregnancies.

But others in the party appear wary of letting the debate become about birth control. McConnell, who’s known in Washington as a master political strategist, was eager on Sunday to keep the focus on religious liberty. “The fact that the White House thinks this is about contraception is the whole problem. This is about freedom of religion, it’s right there in the First Amendment,” he said. “What the overall view on the issue of contraception is has nothing to do with an issue about religious freedom.” McConnell went so far as to accuse Obama of being “rigid in his view that he gets to decide what somebody else’s religion is.”

On the issue of religious liberty, Obama finds himself in more comfortable territory. His policy tweak placated Democrats and moderate Catholics who had voiced concerns, without alienating his constituencies that championed the original rule. The accommodation also makes it more difficult to argue in court that the rule substantially burdens religious freedoms.

If the debate becomes about contraception coverage, it has the potential to drive a wedge between the GOP. For instance, Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME) have in the past championed a birth control mandate similar to Obama’s, and were in no rush to exempt religious groups. Even prominent conservatives like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) have voted for legislation that included a contraception mandate in federal employee health care plans.

The firestorm over the birth control rule has captured the attention of voters who otherwise pay little attention to politics. Republicans have largely held the upper hand so far by keeping the focus on religious freedom, but Obama’s new accommodation for faith-based nonprofits weakens that argument. And as some moderate Republicans have already warned, wading into a no-holds-barred culture war over contraception could be a political disaster for the GOP.

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