Senate Tables Blunt Bill on Women’s Healthcare

After more than a day of intense scuttle over the contraception debate, the Senate defeated a bill that would govern women’s access to birth control and other preventive health care services. Lawmakers voted 51-48 to table the bill. 

The "Respect for Rights of Conscience Act,” also called the Blunt Amendment for its sponsor Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO.), would allow employers and insurance companies to exempt from coverage any service that violates their religious beliefs.

Sen. Blunt introduced the amendment in response to the Obama administration’s compromise on the Affordable Care Act, calling it an “accounting gimmick,” and framed the issue as a debate over religious liberty, not women’s health care.  The debate was kicked off in February when the Obama administration announced a rule that would require health insurance plans to cover contraceptives free of charge – even for women who worked at religious institutions – making it fodder for the 2012 GOP campaign field.

While the Blunt amendment had the support of host of conservatives, including religious leaders from the American Catholic Church, and several Republican senators in heated campaigns, like Sen. Scott Brown (R-Ma.), the party remained divided on the bill. 

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), who announced her decision not to seek reelection on Wednesday, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell while she does support a conscience clause, she opposed the amendment.

“I think with respect to the Blunt amendment, I think it’s much broader than I could support.  I think we should focus on the issue of contraceptives and whether or not it should be included in a health insurance plan, and what requirements there should be.  And I’ve supported the Marco Rubio approach in that regard,” said Snowe 

Not surprisingly, both of NewYork’s Senators voiced full-throated opposition to the amendment on the Senate floor Wednesday. Sen. Charles Schumer said the measure would force women to surrender control of their own health decisions to their bosses.

“Let’s admit what this debate is really and what Republicans really want to take away from American women. It is contraception,” said Schumer.

Schumer’s opposition was echoed by New York’s junior Senator, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who launched the One Million Strong for Women campaign in the wake of the Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood. Gillibrand has called the amendment the latest attack on women’s health and concerns about the impact the bill could have on access to other preventative services, from diabetes screening to vaccination coverage.

While he doesn’t have a vote on the matter, presidential candidate Mitt Romeny weighed in on the issue in an interview with a local television network. Ohio News Network reporter Jim Heath tweeted that presidential candidate Mitt Romney said he doesn’t support the Senate bill. 

But the Romney campaign moved quickly to clarify.  In a statement sent to The Hill, campaign spokeswomen Andrea Saul said, “Regarding the Blunt bill, the way the question was asked was confusing. Governor Romney supports the Blunt Bill because he believes in a conscience exemption in health care for religious institutions and people of faith.”