Senate Republicans Backing Off Contraception Wars

March 7, 2012 12:30 a.m.

From one top GOP senator openly lamenting the fallout of the ongoing fight over contraception, to the author of the controversial legislation at the heart of that fight effectively conceding defeat in the upper chamber, signs mounted Tuesday that suggest Senate Republicans want to put the birth control controversy to bed.

“You know, I think we’ve got as many votes as I think there were to get on that,” Senate GOP Conference Vice Chairman Roy Blunt told TPM Tuesday afternoon after a weekly Capitol briefing. “I think the House side may take some further action. That debate will go on for a long time, though I don’t know that there’s anything else to happen in the Senate in the near future.”

The concession marks a departure for the GOP leadership, which as recently as last week insisted that Republicans were on the right side of the issue and would fight on.

Last Thursday, after his amendment was narrowly tabled 51-48, Blunt vowed that, “The fight is not over.” He had maintained that he wants to tack it onto legislation the president cannot veto. But on Tuesday, after a meeting with his caucus, he dialed down expectations for any further action in the Senate.Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) told TPM that she has no indication that leadership wants to continue the fight. “I really don’t know,” she said. “I really don’t have any sense of that.”

Murkowski — a former member of the GOP leadership — originally expressed reservations about the Blunt legislation and the broader fight over health benefits. Though she ultimately voted for the amendment, she has largely disavowed that vote, and conceded Tuesday that Republicans have fallen on the wrong side of the issue.

More evidence that the GOP is ready to relent: Senate Republican leaders have abandoned what they once considered winning turf, and gone silent after weeks of publicly attacking President Obama and Democrats for infringing on religious liberties.

Murkowski added that ripple effects — on the campaign trail and in public comments by conservative commentators — have damaged the GOP as well. She said she’s heard from constituents, and fretted that the ongoing spat is giving voters the sense that her party is on the wrong side of a war on women’s health.

“I heard a lot [from my constituents] because it was in the news this weekend,” she told me. “There’s just an awful lot that’s been going on. There have been some comments made by some of our presidential candidates. There was the incendiary comments made by Rush Limbaugh. I think [these incidents] are just adding to this sense that women have that women’s health rights are being attacked — that in 2012 we’re having a conversation about whether or not contraception should be allowed. I think most thought that we were done with those discussions decades ago. So it’s been kind of an interesting week for women’s health issues.”

Murkowski said she was “just stunned” by Limbaugh’s protracted smear of Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke. “In the end, I’m a little bit disappointed that there hasn’t been greater condemnation of his words by people in leadership positions,” she said. Even Republicans? “Everybody,” she said.

These concessions delight Democrats, who plan to revisit the events of the last several weeks, and the vote on the Blunt amendment, as the election nears.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who devised the Democrats’ legislative and messaging strategy in this fight, told TPM, “I think Republicans know that it hasn’t served them well.”

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