The front of Thursday’s New York Times National section featured Jennifer Steinhauer’s “Birth Control is Covered, And G.O.P. Vows a Fight.” Steinhauer portrayed the fight in cynical political terms, showcasing Republicans as being opportunistic rather than motivated by principled opposition to Obama’s requirement that Catholic universities and charities violate their religious beliefs by offering free birth control via their health insurance plans.
Congressional Republicans, seizing on the type of social issue that motivates and unifies their base, stepped forcefully Wednesday into the battle over an Obama administration rule requiring health insurance plans provided by Catholic universities and charities to offer free birth control to women, vowing to fight back with legislation to unravel the new policy.
“This is not a women’s rights issue,” said Senator Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire. “This is a religious liberty issue.”
Racing to defend the administration, five Democratic senators returned from their party’s retreat south of the Capitol to hold a news conference to push back on that notion. “We stand here ready to oppose any attack that is being launched against women’s rights and women’s health,” said Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York.
For House Republicans, who have been hammered in the last few months in the battle over a payroll tax holiday, and whose signature bill for the second session, a transportation measure, is already under fire from the left and the right, the fight over the contraception rule offered a possible way to regain their political footing, particularly with signs that the economy might be improving.
It is potentially a powerful wedge issue that could unite what has been a fractured conference. Further, similar to their efforts in support of the Keystone XL pipeline, the party can attract just enough Democrats to their side to complicate things for the administration.
“Wedge issue” is a loaded term. Times Watch counted up nine instances in the past 12 months of Times reporters or sources either stating or implying that a specific political party or political faction was using a topic as a “wedge issue.” Of those nine, eight singled out Republicans as the culprit, while another story said sex education was a wedge issue for both right and left.
To her credit, Steinhauer also captured (deeper into the story) the awkwardness and “downright distaste” some Democrats feel for the Obama rule.
The Republican effort to challenge the new rule could present a difficult choice for Democrats who are uneasy about it, which is exactly what Republicans hope. As the controversy spread across Washington, several Democrats from both chambers expressed feelings from skepticism to downright distaste for the Obama rule.
Representative John B. Larson of Connecticut, a member of the House Democratic leadership, sent a letter to Ms. Sebelius that read: “Having worked to pass the Affordable Care Act and being firmly supportive of its implementation, I believe that further flexibility needs to be granted to religiously affiliated organizations in this instance.”
Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, put out a statement in opposition to the new rule: “I have strongly supported efforts to provide greater access to contraception,” he said. “I believe, just as strongly, that religiously affiliated organizations like hospitals and universities should not be compelled by our federal government to purchase insurance policies that violate their religious and moral convictions.”