WASHINGTON-The Senate shot down Thursday the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, also known as the Blunt-Rubio amendment, which would have given religious employers expanded conscience protections from President Obama's contraceptive/abortifacient mandate. The Senate tabled the amendment 51-48, a narrow vote where Republicans won the support of three Democrats and kept the votes of most of the moderate female Republicans, belying the narrative that the amendment was something only extreme right-wingers would support.
Most Democrats characterized the amendment as a "ban" on contraceptives and said if the amendment became law it would result in millions of women losing their current healthcare coverage. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., even said it would result in women losing coverage of breast cancer screenings and flu vaccines.
The Obama campaign also lobbied hard against the amendment, warning in an email to supporters that "nearly 80 million women who receive coverage through their employers could lose access to these preventive services" because of the conscience protection amendment. The Obama campaign also repeated the line that the amendment could result in employers denying coverage for flu shots.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said the amendment wouldn't change anyone's current healthcare coverage, but rather reinforced federal conscience protections already in place. Blunt, a Southern Baptist, has perhaps been sensitive to the conscience concerns of religious institutions because he was president of Southwest Baptist University before joining Congress in the 1990s. Religious colleges don't qualify for a religious exemption under the contraceptive mandate.
Three Democrats voted with Republicans for the amendment: Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. Only one Republican crossed over to vote with Democrats: Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, a moderate who plans to retire this year.
Before the vote, some expected other Republican moderates to vote against the amendment, fulfilling the narrative that far-right Republicans were pushing an issue that was political suicide in an election year. But Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, two moderates who some expected to cross over, voted for the amendment.
Collins explained before the vote that she supports family planning, but the contraceptive mandate, and the president's subsequent "accommodation" requiring insurance companies to pay for contraceptives for religious employees, worried her on the basis of religious freedom protections.
"The rule was totally unclear," said Collins, who wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to ask how specifically religious groups would be protected, like those that self-insure. "This was not a complicated question."
Sebelius' response didn't satisfy the senator. "Sadly the administration once again skirted the answer," said Collins, who quoted the letter, where Sebelius wrote her that the president was "committed to rule-making to ensure access to these important preventive services … while further accommodating religious organization's beliefs." Collins asked, "What does that mean?" She said the amendment had flaws, but, "When the administration cannot even assure me that self-insured, faith-based organizations' religious freedoms are protected, I feel I have no choice." And then she voted for the amendment-or she technically voted "no" because the vote was whether to table the amendment.
Even if the Senate had voted not to table the amendment, that wouldn't have technically "passed" the amendment, and Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid had a dozen ways to kill the amendment using Senate rules before it would ever become law.
Blunt said before the vote that even if the amendment didn't pass, the Supreme Court would resolve the matter in favor of conscience protections. He referred to the recent religious freedom ruling in the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School case, where the court unanimously said that the government had no jurisdiction over the church school.
"You can try all you want to separate these issues but they don't separate," Blunt said.