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.
"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."
A few Democrats swung into action by late afternoon, including a handful of female Senators who left the retreat early to denounce the GOP attacks.
"Attacks on women's rights never come without being disguised as something else," Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) said at a hastily called press conference with Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.).
"Women in this country are tired of being treated like a political kickball by [Republicans] who have tried continually — and are continuing to try — to take away their benefits, to take away their rights," Boxer said.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said the president, who spoke to Democrats at their retreat, reiterated his support for the rule. Obama is "sticking by what he said, and we should be very careful to explain that ... an exception was made for those who have the religious objections and the institutions," Lautenberg said.
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) said Republicans are "trying to do anything they can to distract from the fact they have a terrible record on the economy and job creation."
Indeed, Republicans appeared sensitive to the charge that they were diverting attention from what voters have consistently said is their No. 1 concern: the economy. Boehner spokesman Michael Steel took care to say in his notice about the Speaker's speech: "While jobs and the economy are, and will remain, our primary focus, the issue of religious freedom is not going away."
The issue appeared to be splitting some Catholics in Congress. Some, such as Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), said they support the administration's decision. "If a Catholic woman doesn't want to have access to contraceptive services she doesn't have to ... but if someone who is working for a Catholic church or Catholic institution does want access, why shouldn't she have that right?" he asked.
Other Catholic Democrats, however, were privately uncomfortable with the ruling, particularly because it highlights a tension within the Catholic community.
Republicans also were not immune to the issue's political difficulties.
Asked whether they could support a presidential candidate who, as governor, signed into law a provision that required hospitals in his state to provide emergency contraception to rape victims, Senate Republicans faltered.
Following an awkwardly long silence, Blunt — a surrogate for presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who signed such a law as governor of Massachusetts — fielded the question.
"This is about religious liberty, these institutions. You can try to turn it into all the political discussion you want," Blunt said. "This is a First Amendment American right. It has nothing to do with who said that when or who said this. This is about this issue right now."
Maine Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins in 2001 co-sponsored an "Equity in Prescription Insurance and Contraceptive Coverage Act." A review of the posted legislative text revealed that there were no apparent religious or conscience clause exemptions.
A spokesman for Snowe said the Senator "believes the president should meet with faith leaders to resolve the issues so that the appropriate religious exemptions can be agreed upon."
Collins is co-sponsoring the Rubio measure, her spokesman said, because "she believes it presents the Catholic Church and other faith-based organizations with an impossible choice between violating their religious beliefs or complying with federal regulations."