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GOP leaders Wednesday launched a coordinated assault on the Obama administration's controversial birth control rule, accusing the White House of trampling on religious freedoms and vowing to overturn the new rule.
The Jan. 20 rule requiring religious-affiliated hospitals and universities, but not churches, to provide insurance coverage of contraceptives has become an unexpected flash point in the nation's four-decades long culture war. Even though social issues threaten to detract from both parties' self-proclaimed focus on the economy, Democrats and Republicans scrambled for the high ground on the birth control issue.
Speaker John Boehner struck first, delivering a rare floor speech to slam the administration, arguing the rule "constitutes an unambiguous attack on religious freedom in our country."
The Ohio Republican, who is Catholic, pulled no punches: "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 also made clear that the House would move quickly to undo the requirement if the White House does not rescind the Department of Health and Human Services rule.
"If the president does not reverse the 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," Boehner said.
Shortly after Boehner's noon speech, Senate Republican leaders held a news conference of their own to attack the administration's policy, hinting that they too would pursue legislative options.
"We're discussing the appropriate response," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said. He noted that freshman Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) are leading the Conference's effort.
"This is not a women's rights issue. This is a religious liberty issue," Ayotte told reporters.
By late in the day, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton said he would "probably have something tomorrow" to introduce in the House, but he noted he was continuing to work on his legislation.
"We're very concerned about this ruling, so we're going to come back with legislation to fight it," the Michigan Republican said. "We're working on a number of different fronts, but we're not quite ready. ... We don't have specifics yet, but we're in discussion mode."
The barrage of Republicans attacks appeared to catch Democrats off guard; Senate Democrats were holding their annual retreat at Nationals Park while House Democrats were initially slow to respond.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney spent most of Wednesday's daily briefing fielding questions about the rule, and he sought to tamp down the growing controversy that has inflamed Catholic groups. He told reporters that President Barack Obama "is very sensitive to concerns like these and wants to find a way to implement it that can allay some of the concerns that have been expressed."