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White House Lays Low as Birth Control Dispute Heats Up

White House Lays Low as Birth Control Dispute Heats Up

By Alexis Simendinger - February 8, 2012

If the White House had been searching for an issue that could draw sharper contrasts with Republicans over women's health, economic opportunities and freedom, a skirmish with Catholic bishops and others over a requirement that health insurance cover contraception costs might just do it.

For yet another day, the White House hung back while the discussion in Washington took on distinctly partisan and gender-rich overtones.

House Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday vowed to legislatively block the Obama administration rule finalized by the Department of Health and Human Services in January. The fight, he said during an impassioned floor speech, is about whether church-based employers can be forced by the government to violate the tenets of their faith.

“If the president does not reverse the [Health and Human Services] Department’s attack on religious freedom, then the Congress, acting on behalf of the American people and the Constitution we are sworn to uphold and defend, must,” he said.

“In imposing this requirement, the federal government is violating a First Amendment right that has stood for more than two centuries. And it is doing so in a manner that affects millions of Americans and harms some of our nation’s most vital institutions,” Boehner added.

But elsewhere in the Capitol, a band of female lawmakers, Democrats all, organized what they called an “emergency” conference call with the media to argue that the Obama administration had not attacked religious liberty, but was instead remedying insurance inequities while promoting “freedom” and “choice.” A similar group of senators also stepped forward to back the administration. Health insurance is part of women’s reproductive choices, preventative health care, and economic well-being, they said.

“It’s not a radical rule,” Rep. Lois Capps of California asserted, for the government to require employers to offer health insurance to employees that covers contraception without co-pays, co-insurance or deductibles. (The rule exempts churches but applies to church-related institutions such as hospitals and universities.) Critics of the administration, she said, were “using women’s health as a political football.”

And while the issues might embolden Republicans to challenge the administration today, the arguments for religious liberty -- misplaced, they argued -- might wind up encouraging women to vote for Democrats tomorrow.

“I believe there will be a backlash,” predicted Illinois Rep. Jan Shakowsky. Polls suggest “there is overwhelming support for this kind of rule, and I think there will be a backlash. The women of America will feel that over the years we’ve seen ourselves be discriminated against in health care, and in 2012, we’re just not going to go backwards. I think there’s going to be a great mobilization.”

The freedom that American women want, including Catholic and religious women, are the opportunities to “make their own decisions” about contraception, rather than leaving those decisions up to employers, Shakowsky said.

The White House did not echo those forceful predictions that American women might rise up against the speaker or other conservatives. Instead, for the third day in a row spokesman Jay Carney underscored President Obama’s sensitivity to criticism of the administration’s policy, his vague promise to “allay concerns” through the gradual implementation of the HHS rule, and a forceful re-emphasis of the president’s central policy aims.

The administration believes “there are ways to approach this that would ensure the rule is implemented so that women have access to these important health care services no matter where they work, but also that hopefully would allay some of the concerns expressed,” Carney said repeatedly.

Women make up the majority of American voters, and in 2008 they backed Obama against John McCain. For years, political analysts have dissected a discernible gender gap in presidential elections, a gulf the president has in mind again this year. 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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