House Republicans Hesitate on Birth Control Mandate

John Boehner

While most House Republicans still support legislation to broaden the exemption for religious employers, House Republican leaders are carefully reviewing their options on the issue, which Democrats used to political advantage in the Senate.

The goal of House Republicans has not changed, they said, but they worry about further alienating women in this year’s elections.

In a speech on the House floor on Feb. 8, Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, vowed to block the Obama administration rule because, he said, it would force many religious employers to violate their religious beliefs and moral convictions.

“This attack by the federal government on religious freedom in our country must not stand and will not stand,” Mr. Boehner said then. The Energy and Commerce Committee is “taking the lead” in writing legislation to overturn the president’s policy, Mr. Boehner said then.

On the same day, Representative Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan and chairman of the committee, said, “I plan to move quickly” on legislation.

But five weeks later, no legislation is in sight. Aides to Mr. Upton said the decision about how to proceed was in the hands of the speaker.

“It’s been kicked up to the leadership,” a committee member said. “They want a cooling-off period.”

Aides to the House Republican whip, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, said they detected no urgency in taking up legislation. A leadership aide said the speaker was taking “a deliberative approach.”

Republicans in swing districts are particularly eager to defer votes, which they fear could be used to portray them as opponents of reproductive health care for women.

Representative Judy Biggert, Republican of Illinois, said, “We should keep our focus on economic growth and jobs, instead of getting sidetracked by issues that divide us.”

Representative Tom Reed, Republican of New York, disagrees with the president’s policy. But he said: “We have clearly staked out our opposition to it. It’s time to move on to other issues, like jobs and the economy.”

Republicans control the House schedule and could bring legislation to the floor at any time if they agreed on a proposal and saw political benefits in pressing the issue.

By a vote of 51 to 48, the Senate recently upheld President Obama’s birth control policy and turned back Republican efforts to let employers and health insurance companies deny coverage for contraceptives and other items to which they object on religious or moral grounds.

Republican senators tried to frame the issue as a matter of conscience rather than contraception, while Democrats cited the proposal as evidence of a Republican war against women — a theme echoed on the Senate floor on Thursday as Democrats urged swift passage of a separate bill to fight domestic violence.

The 12 Democratic women in the Senate tried to turn up the heat on Mr. Boehner. In a letter, they asked him to “abandon the promise” he had made to bring legislation to the House floor overriding Mr. Obama’s birth control policy. In a Twitter message on Thursday, Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, invited Americans to sign an online petition urging the speaker to “stop the attacks on women and birth control.”

Several House Republicans, mindful of the political risks, said that Roman Catholic bishops needed to do more to educate and mobilize the public.

In the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, 57 percent of Americans said that religiously affiliated employers, like universities and hospitals, should be allowed to opt out of the requirement to cover birth control if they had religious or moral objections. The telephone poll was conducted March 7 to 11 with 1,009 adults nationwide.

“Americans inherently support the notion that the federal government should respect the right to religious freedom,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner. “Democrats have tried mightily to make this issue something it’s not, but they overlook the millions of Americans whose religious beliefs are not susceptible to Washington spin.”

The White House and Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign see the fight as an opportunity to court women and to build support for the new health care law, on which public opinion remains deeply divided.

At least 28 states have laws requiring insurers to cover birth control. Twenty of them allow some employers and insurers to opt out. Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, a research and advocacy group, said the exemptions in about half of those states were narrower than those allowed by Mr. Obama, while in the rest the exemptions were broader.

Leave a Reply