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Welcome or Not, Back to Culture War

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
From left: Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg, Patty Murray, Richard Blumenthal and Barbara Boxer conduct a news conference in the Capitol on GOP Sen. Roy Blunt’s amendment on contraception.

Republicans were feeling good about it. Although Boehner and McConnell were not interested in seeing social issues take center stage in their messaging this election year, the contraception rule gave them an easy and powerful way to rally their base.

Sensing that, the White House quickly stepped in and announced a new compromise, one that would exempt those institutions from the rule, putting the onus for providing contraceptive services onto the institutions' insurance providers.

For leadership, that victory seemed to do the trick Boehner and McConnell have both largely avoided the issue, not referencing it in their formal statements to the media. And although both men have faced questions on contraception from the media, leadership aides said both are eager to get back to hitting the White House on its economic and job-creation record and to not get bogged down in social issues.

Unfortunately for them, the controversy has taken on a life of its own. GOP presidential nomination contender and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), who is a devout Catholic, has made the rule a central talking point, routinely accusing Obama of attempting to curb religious freedoms.

In the Senate, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has taken up the cause and hopes to force the chamber to vote on an amendment that would extend the exemption to anyone who opposes contraception on moral grounds.

In the House, Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on Thursday held a hearing in which he called witnesses who all criticized the rule.

Their efforts have revved up a GOP base that has at times been listless this year and has given the deeply divided Congressional conference a chance to rally together.

But those internal gains have come at a cost as Democrats have capitalized on the GOP's efforts. Senate Democrats, led by Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.) have repeatedly laid into Republicans.

"It's extreme, it is dangerous ... it puts politics between women and their health care," Murray said at a press conference last week.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), one of a handful of Senate Democrats who served through the culture wars of the 1990s, lamented: "There they go again. The same old story. This is an attack by the men's club. ... The GOP agenda gives women one option: barefoot and pregnant."

In the House, a group of female lawmakers walked out of Issa's Thursday hearing in protest not only of the subject matter but of the fact that Issa had not included a woman in the panel of religious leaders who were testifying about the rule's effects.

The hearing and photos of the panel of five men have become a rallying point for progressives and Democrats, and Murray on Friday hammered Issa.

"I'm sure by now many of my colleagues here have seen the picture of this all-male hearing. It's a picture that says a thousand words. And it's one that most women thought they left behind," Murray said, adding that "from the moment they came into power, Republicans in the House of Representatives have been waging a war on women's health."

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