WASHINGTON -- Unbowed by the dust-up from last week’s contraception debate, the Obama administration has jumped feet-first into the next round.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, in a statement to The Huffington Post, weighed in heavily against a toughly-worded measure being considered in the Senate that would greatly restrict women's access to critical health care services.
"Let's be clear about what's at stake," said Carney. "The proposal being considered in the Senate applies to all employers -- not just religious employers. And it isn't limited to contraception. Any employer could restrict access to any service they say they object to. That is dangerous and it is wrong. Decisions about medical care should be made by a woman and her doctor, not a woman and her boss.”
The measure, proposed by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) would amend the Affordable Care Act to allow any employer to exclude any health service coverage, no matter how critical or basic, by claiming that it violates their religious or moral convictions. Moreover, according to the National Women's Law Center, the amendment would remove critical non-discrimination protections from the Affordable Care Act. For instance, an insurer could deny maternity care coverage to a same-sex couple, an interracial couple or a single woman for religious or moral reasons.
Coming just days after last week's debate over the White House decision that religious-affiliated hospitals and schools had to provide contraception coverage in plans for employees, the Blunt amendment resembled a serious ratcheting-up of the culture war debates. But if the GOP calculation was that the Obama administration was in retreat (the president was forced to revise the ruling on Friday under political pressure), Carney's statement suggested the opposite.
Beyond philosophical support for the idea of expanding health care access for women, the White House recognizes that polls are on their side. And in the case of the Blunt amendment, there had already been backlash against Republican overreach before Carney's statement.
"[I]t's unbelievably broad," said Judy Waxman, vice president for health and reproductive rights for the National Women's Law Center. "I hear some people framing this about religious freedom, but I think it's really about undermining health insurance in an extremely dramatic way and letting individual people decide what is moral for everybody they employ or insure."
"Sen. Blunt’s proposal would render the notion of health insurance meaningless, and give businesses and corporations effective veto power over their employee’s health care decisions," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
The legislative future for the Blunt amendment was, as of Tuesday afternoon, not entirely clear. The senator had attached his proposal to the massive transportation bill to give it the best chance for passage. It's a "vehicle that this president must sign," Blunt said. "If that doesn’t happen, I hope to get the next president to sign it."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid initially blocked Blunt's amendment on Thursday, calling it "senseless." But on Tuesday he agreed to allow a vote.
"This is a terrible vote for them," said a Senate Democratic aide, explaining why Reid relented. "We are thrilled at the prospect about spending as much time as possible talking about this vote. They are caught between their base and a hard place."
While the Senate has a Democratic majority, a handful of moderate Democrats initially opposed the Obama administration's birth control rule and demanded that it be repealed. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) co-sponsored the Blunt amendment with 19 Republicans, including moderate Scott Brown (R-Mass.). The number of GOP sponsors may grow.
Some Democrats who initially opposed the birth control rule, including Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Sen. Bob Casey, of Pennsylvania, have not commented on Obama's revised decision or indicated how they will vote on Blunt's amendment. Neither senator responded to calls for comment. Other Democrats were outspoken in their concerns about the reach of the amendment's language.
"This would gut the protections that were established in the Affordable Care Act and open a Pandora's box that allows employers to deny coverage for virtually anything they might object to," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). "I think this is really out of touch with where most of Americans are."
CORRECTION:An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) as Bill Nelson.