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Birth Control Legislation Stalls in Senate

Udall, right, is a co-sponsor of the bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senators blocked legislation Wednesday that would have required Hobby Lobby and other private employers with religious interests to pay for birth control.  

The Senate rejected, by a 56-43 vote, the first procedural motion to advance the bill. Sixty votes were needed to limit debate on the motion to proceed. Republican members Susan Collins of Maine, Mark S. Kirk of Illinois and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted with nearly all Democrats in favor of cloture.  

Before the vote closed, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., switched his vote for procedural reasons. The bill (S 2578) would upend a Supreme Court ruling last month in a case involving Hobby Lobby, in which they argued that they should not have to cover employees' contraception, as required by President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, because of the owner’s religious beliefs. The Supreme Court agreed.  

The measure, sponsored by Democrats Patty Murray of Washington and Mark Udall of Colorado, would prevent employers from refusing to cover contraception or any other type of health coverage guaranteed under federal law for their employees and dependents.  

Republicans united in opposition, with some calling the legislation an attempt to restrict religious freedoms.  

“In America, you shouldn’t be forced to choose between giving up your business for your faith or giving up your faith for your business,” Missouri Republican Roy Blunt said before the vote. “The government has no right – under the Constitution, under the political heritage of the country, under the things that this country was built to stand for – the government has no right to ask people to make that choice.”  

GOP senators offered a competing proposal (S 2605) they said would clarify that employers cannot prohibit their employees from purchasing birth control. It also would ask the FDA to study whether contraceptives could be available without a prescription and allow women to set aside more money in special health savings accounts for out-of-pocket costs.  

Democrats argued the ruling effectively gives corporations control over the medical decisions of their employees, who may not share their religious beliefs. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., reiterated the dissenting opinion from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who said women are less likely to pursue certain forms of health care because of high costs.  

“The issue here is not just access to that care. It’s the cost of that care,” Shaheen said. “And when you charge women more for contraception coverage, then you are denying them access to that care.”