Like two boxers returning to the center of the ring, Senate Democrats and Republicans return from a weeklong recess this week to debate and vote on a GOP proposal that would allow companies and insurance providers to opt out of mandated birth control coverage for religious reasons.
Democrats are eagerly anticipating the debate because they see an opportunity to use the issue for political gain in the upcoming November elections.
The GOP proposal — expected to be offered as an amendment sometime this week to a transportation bill currently being considered by the Senate — would “give employers an unprecedented license to dictate what women and men can have covered,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) on a conference call with reporters Friday.
“It’s extreme, it’s dangerous and it puts employers smack between women and their health care and politics between women and their health care,” said Murray, who is also the chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The amendment, which is sponsored by Republican Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), 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 religious-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.
Republicans said Friday that Democrats have stooped to scaring voters by spreading misinformation. They charge that the modified rule still does not take into account the conscience of religious employers, such as the Catholic Church, that opposes contraception.
“I agree that politics don’t belong in this debate and that’s why these blatant attempts to frighten and mislead Americans about this bipartisan bill are simply shameful,” said Blunt, who is the Republican Conference vice chairman.
After considering the Blunt amendment, the Senate is expected to continue to debate the $109 billion, two-year surface transportation reauthorization. That debate is likely to last a few more weeks, according to a Senate Democratic leadership aide.
Other possible amendments to the bill include a proposal from Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) to strip a provision that would allow the Nevada Department of Transportation to use funds from an unspent 2005 earmark; an amendment to green light the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline and an amendment to delay and alter boiler pollution regulations.
In the House, meanwhile, Speaker John Boehner’s ambitious plan to pursue a comprehensive energy and transportation bill fundamentally reshaping how the government pays for highways was in shambles, the victim of GOP infighting.
After initially breaking up his bill into its constituent parts, the Ohio Republican was forced late Thursday to scrap plans for a vote this week on the highway and transit funding portion.
Although Boehner’s office sought to pin the blame for the bill’s collapse on Senate Democrats, parochial demands from within his own conference, as well as strong conservative opposition ultimately doomed the bill.
Boehner now appears headed back to the drawing board on transportation, and he will likely make significant changes to his original five-year plan. According to GOP aides, in addition to shrinking its length — likely to two years — Boehner will also abandon his plan to do away with funding transit programs from the broader transportation budget, a proposal that had engendered bipartisan opposition in the House.
Boehner may also look to shave some of the spending off the top of the new bill in an effort to appease some of his conservative Members.
Boehner and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) will likely also have to spend significant time educating their Members on the changes and lining up votes, a process which could take several weeks.