After an intense debate and rhetorical bombast on both sides, the Senate voted, 51-48, to kill a GOP amendment that would allow companies and insurance providers to opt out of mandated birth control coverage for religious reasons.
Of the 51 that voted to kill the bill, only one was a Republican, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. Three Democrats joined Republicans in favor of the amendment: Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
Senate Democrats agreed to hold a vote on the amendment despite complaints that it was not related to the underlying transportation bill. But they charged that the proposal is far-reaching and would result in women losing access to a vital health care service.
"Today the Senate will vote on an extreme, ideological amendment to the bipartisan transportation bill," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said before the vote. "It would allow any employer or insurer to deny coverage for virtually any treatment for virtually any reason."
Reid continued: "To make matters worse, Republicans have held up progress on an important jobs bill to extract this political vote. This amendment has no place on a transportation bill."
Reid hopes that by getting the amendment out of way, Democrats and Republicans will be able to agree to vote on a list of amendments and finish the transportation measure as soon as possible. Other potential amendments include a proposal to green-light the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline and an amendment to delay and alter boiler pollution regulations.
After the vote, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), at a press conference with Democratic leaders, appeared to single out Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) for his vote in favor of the amendment. He also referenced the recent announcement that Snowe plans to retire and charged that Republicans were driving moderates from the ranks.
"I don't envy the rank-and-file Republicans who walked the plank on this vote," said Schumer, who also heads the Senate Democrats policy and communications arm.
"I think it's going to be awfully hard to defend it back home, especially in places like New England," Schumer said.
Brown's office released a letter supporting his vote from Democratic Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, who also served as ambassador to the Vatican during the Clinton administration. Brown is in a tough fight for re-election this year against Democrat Elizabeth Warren.
Members of the GOP argue that the amendment — which was sponsored by Republican Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) — would not result in the denial of health care services to women and would merely allow religious institutions to exercise their religious freedom. Republicans also said the amendment would mirror previous laws that were in effect before the 2010 health care law was passed.
Reprising some of his arguments from the health care debate, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the issue is another example of a law that overreaches and is unconstitutional — in this case abridging First Amendment rights.
"If the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment means anything, it means that it is not within the power of the federal government to tell anybody what to believe or to punish them for practicing those beliefs," McConnell said.
"And yet that's precisely what the Obama administration is trying to do through the president's health care law," he continued. "We all remember then- [Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)] saying that we'd have to pass the health care bill to find out what was in it. Well, this is one of the things we've found: that it empowers bureaucrats in Washington to decide which tenets religious institutions can and can't adhere to. If they don't get in line, they're penalized."
The amendment comes in response to a rule put forward by the Obama administration that would require insurance companies to provide and pay for contraception services in accordance with the two-year-old health care law pushed through by Democrats.
The rule initially would have required employers, including religiously affiliated hospitals and universities, to provide insurance that covers contraception, but the White House modified it after taking fire from Catholic groups. Now, insurers bear the burden of offering birth control coverage to women working for religious institutions.
Meanwhile, it's not yet clear whether the House will take up a similar measure.
Speaker John Boehner said Thursday before the Senate vote that he would decide how to proceed in the House after the Senate acted. But he stated, "It's important for us to win this issue.
"It's important that we continue to protect the religious beliefs of the American people from their government," the Ohio Republican said. "I believe that standing up for the Constitution, standing up for people's protection under the law and under the Constitution to practice their belief as they like, is an important part of my job. I'm trying to find a way, frankly, to get a bipartisan agreement to solve this problem."
Just before Boehner spoke, Pelosi, now House Minority Leader, told reporters that the amendment is "extreme" and "a blunt and sweeping overreach into women's health."
"Republicans are kicking of women's history month by bringing the Blunt amendment to the floor," the California Democrat said. It is "part of the Republican agenda of disrespecting women's health issues."
After the press conference, Schumer said Democrats hope to finish work on the transportation bill next week. He said no decisions have been made on what the Senate will consider after, but he added that confirmation of judges, postal reform and bipartisan capital formation bills are possibilities.
Schumer said that the capital formation bills, which have been promoted by House Republicans, are important, but he said passing a highway bill would mean more jobs.
"Is it a panacea? No. Is it a good thing to do? Yes. Is it as important as the highway bill in terms of jobs? No," Schumer said.