By a vote of 51–48, the Senate agreed to table a Republican amendment offered by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) that would have empowered employers to deny coverage of health services to their employees on the basis of personal moral objections. The measure represented the GOP’s response to President Obama’s rule requiring employers to provide contraception and other preventive health services as part of their health insurance plans. Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (ME) — who announced her retirement earlier this week — was the only Republican to join Democrats in “tabling” the amendment, while three Democrats, Sens. Ben Nelson (NE), Joe Manchin (WV), and Bob Casey (PA) voted to preserve it.
During the nearly two hour debate, Republicans attempted to frame the issue as an attempt to prevent religious organizations from the Obama administration’s overreach and, despite supporting efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, maintained that women could obtain birth control from public sources. Blunt took to the floor to argue that employers would be discouraged from denying certain treatments by existing state mandates and a provision in the amendment requiring employers to replace the benefit with another service.
The most surprising support came from Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), a pro-choice Republican who has previously supported contraception equity measures without conscience exemptions for religious organizations. Collins expressed skepticism about the wide scope of Blunt’s amendment, but said the administration’ incomplete rule — specifically its lack of detail about how to treat self-insured plans — compelled her to support the measure. “I feel that I have to vote for Sen. Blunt’s amendment with the hope that the scope will be narrowed and refined,” she said, adding, “I do this with a lot of conflict.”
The Obama administration’s rule requires employers to offer contraception in their health care benefit plans, but exempts houses of worship and nonprofits that primarily employ people of the same faith from covering birth control. Religiously affiliated hospitals, colleges, and other nonprofits can also eschew the benefit. Their employees would obtain the coverage — at no additional cost sharing — directly from the insurer.