The Senate voted on Thursday 51 to 48 to reject a controversial amendment sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) that would have overridden the Obama Administration's new contraception coverage rule and allowed any employer to refuse to cover any kind of health care service by citing "moral reasons." Three Democrats, Sens. Bob Casey (Pa.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.), voted with Republicans in favor of the amendment, and only one Republican, Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), voted against it.
Although Obama's contraception mandate includes a broad exemption for churches and faith-based employers, Senate Republicans argued on Thursday that requiring any employer, even a non-religious one, to cover health services that they oppose is an attack on religious freedom.
"This is just the beginning," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor before the vote. "If the government is allowed to tell people to buy health care, it won't stop there. I wonder what's next? This isn't about one particular religion -- it's about the right of any American to live out their faith without the government picking and choosing which doctrines they're allowed to follow."
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), one of the few Senate Republicans who identifies as pro-choice, reluctantly voted in favor of the measure, even though she admitted that it was "flawed." She said she was dissatisfied with the administration's response to her question about self-insured religious organizations, which may still be required to cover contraception for employees under the new rule.
"I feel I have to vote for the Blunt amendment with the hope that its scope will be further narrowed and refined as the legislative process proceeds," she said. "I do this with a lot of conflict, because I think the amendment does have its flaws, but when the administration cannot even assure me that self-insured faith-based organizations' religious freedom is protected, I feel I have no choice."
Opponents of the bill pointed out that the amendment not only would have allowed employers to cherry-pick women's health care options based on moral beliefs, but it also would have rolled back some of the basic anti-discrimination protections in the Affordable Care Act. For instance, under the amendment, an employer could refuse to cover things like HIV/AIDS screenings, prenatal care for single mothers, mammograms, vaccinations for children and even screenings for diabetes based on objections to a perceived immoral lifestyle.
While Republicans have been trying to frame the issue as being purely about religious freedom and not about women's health, female lawmakers and Democrats have argued that the amendment is the latest front in the so-called war on women.
"Women and families across America can breathe a sigh of relief that this radical amendment was blocked by Senate Democrats today," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) after the vote. "It was absolutely appalling that Republicans forced us to spend days and days dealing with contraception and women's health, but I am hopeful that we can now get back to work on legislation to create jobs and invest in communities across America."