Republican leaders might be trying to avoid getting re-entangled in the culture wars, but Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman Roy Blunt on Tuesday said he is considering intervening in a legal challenge to a proposed federal contraception rule brought by Catholic organizations.
The Missouri Republican — who is presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s liaison to Congress — said he is looking into joining the challenge to the rule, which requires religiously affiliated hospitals and other institutions, excluding churches, to provide employee health insurance that includes access to contraception.
When asked whether he or other Republicans would file an amicus brief, Blunt said, “I’ve been [in] a few discussions on it ... but I haven’t made a decision on it nor has a decision been made on it yet, as far as I know.”
On Monday, 43 Catholic dioceses and other religious organizations filed challenges to the rule in all 11 circuits of the federal judicial system, claiming the law violates the Constitution’s religious freedom protections.
“We have tried negotiation with the Administration and legislation with the Congress — and we’ll keep at it — but there’s still no fix. Time is running out, and our valuable ministries and fundamental rights hang in the balance, so we have to resort to the courts now,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement.
The issue became a cause celebre for Republicans when Catholic organizations protested the Department of Health and Human Services rule in February. But the two most vocal GOP critics of the rule — Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) — were conspicuous in their silence Tuesday.
While Boehner’s official Twitter account posted a link to a Wall Street Journal opinion piece defending the suit, his office did not put out a statement on the suits and declined a request for comment.
Likewise, McConnell’s office did not put out a statement and, when asked at his weekly press conference about the issue, the Senate’s top Republican silently deferred to Blunt.
A senior Senate GOP leadership aide argued the decision to stay away from the contraception fight is the right one.
“No way. Absolutely not. There’s no way any of our guys should touch this with a 10-foot pole,” the aide said when asked whether Republicans would resume their vocal attacks on the rule.
The lack of leadership engagement on the contraception issue is not entirely surprising, given the difficulties the party has had with Democrats’ recent accusations that the GOP is engaging in a “war on women.”
The leadership aide argued that “February was a very different situation” than the current legal challenges and noted that Republicans were coming off a bruising fight over the payroll tax cut extension “and McConnell’s office was very happy to change the subject.”
Initially, Republicans felt like they were on the winning side of the issue as they pushed to define the conflict over the rule as an issue of religious freedom, not women’s health.
But after the Obama administration revised the rule to explicitly exempt churches from the rule and require insurance companies, instead of religious-affiliated employers, to offer birth control coverage, the issue lost altitude.
In addition, Democrats stepped up their attacks on the GOP, saying the party’s position undermined women’s access to health services.
“We learned our lesson from that. ... Now it’s jobs and the economy, jobs and the economy, jobs and the economy,” the leadership aide said.
Boehner’s positioning, too, appears to be at least partially a component of his determined effort to keep his Conference focused on jobs and the economy — not social issues.
For instance, following President Barack Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage earlier this month, Boehner repeatedly steered clear of becoming embroiled in a debate on the issue.
“The president and Democrats can talk about this all they want, but the American people are focused on jobs and the economy. ... I’m going to stay focused on jobs,” Boehner told reporters at one point this month.
So far, Democrats don’t seem particularly interested in rehashing the issue either, with Democratic leaders remaining mum. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who in February called GOP opposition to the rule a “vicious political attack” on women, dismissed the most recent lawsuit out of hand.
“The president’s approach is very, very respectful in a constitutional way of the role of churches” in society, Boxer said Tuesday.
Still, Blunt predicted the fight is far from over. Noting that all of the circuit courts are facing decisions on the rule’s constitutionality, he predicted the matter would quickly make it to the Supreme Court.
“This is not an issue that’s going to go away. ... It’s about religious freedom,” Blunt said. “I’m a Protestant. I don’t have any problem with contraception. I have a problem with the government forcing people who do think it’s wrong participating in it in some way.”