Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., center, accompanied by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., right, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
WASHINGTON (AP) - Democrats are deeply divided over President
Barack Obama's new rule that religious schools and hospitals must
provide insurance for free birth control to their employees amid
fresh signs that the administration was scrambling for a way out.
"This is not only unacceptable, it is un-American," says Sen.
Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a Catholic who faces re-election in November
in a state where Wednesday nights are reserved for church services.
Another Catholic senator, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, has pleaded
with the administration "to correct this decision which will erode
the conscience rights" that have been protected for decades. His
opposition echoes the criticism of his bishop in Scranton, Rev.
Joseph C. Bambera.
Several Democrats, including Senate candidate Tim Kaine in
Virginia and Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski, have been outspoken in
assailing the recently announced administration mandate that has
angered religious groups and unified Republicans in protest. In a
reflection of the party split, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid,
D-Nev., on Thursday blocked a GOP effort to debate an amendment on religious freedom.
A day earlier, liberal female senators thanked Obama for the new
policy during a closed-door retreat.
"We're here to stand up for the women of America who deserve to
have access to free preventive care through their health
insurance," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said later at a news
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that
if Republicans try to repeal the policy, "we'll use this as a
welcome debate to support women's health."
Facing intense pressure, the White House has indicated that it
is trying to come up with a compromise. Vice President Joe Biden, a
Catholic, said in a radio interview Thursday that "there is going
to be a significant attempt to work this out and there is time to
do that." He spoke with Bill Cunningham of 700 WLW in Cincinnati.
The party break over the contentious issue could reverberate in
an election year, with implications not only for Obama in
battleground states with significant numbers of Catholic
working-class voters such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, but also for
Democrats in congressional races. The political upside for Casey or
Manchin is a fresh opportunity to show their independence from the
president; the political downside is potentially pushing too far on
a matter that resonates with female voters critical to the
Democrats' prospects in November.
In a show of defiance, Manchin joined forces with Republican
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida on Thursday in introducing legislation
to expand the religious exemption and undo the Obama policy.
"I don't know why the federal government jumped in at the level
they did," Manchin said.
Manchin said he has been in touch with his bishop, Rev. Michael
Bransfield, of the diocese for Wheeling and Charleston, who has
called the rule "a radical break with the tradition of religious
liberty and respect for conscience rights."
More than 150 Catholic cardinals and bishops throughout the
country have been relentless in assailing the policy, with many of
their letters on the policy sent to parishioners or read aloud at
Stepping up the pressure, a worldwide Catholic broadcasting
network based in Alabama filed a lawsuit Thursday against the
administration over the policy. The suit, filed by the nonprofit
EWTN Global Catholic Network, claims the rules are unconstitutional
because they would require the broadcaster to violate church
principles on the sanctity of life.
"This is a moment when EWTN, as a Catholic organization, has to
step up and say that enough is enough," said Michael Warsaw, the
network's president. "Our hope is that our lawsuit does just
Among Democrats, Manchin and Casey are in line with their
church's leaders and holding fast to their religious beliefs. Yet
in West Virginia, the senator still has faced criticism from the
Republican Party on the issue.
Frustration among some Democrats dates to early December when
Casey, Manchin and several other moderate House and Senate
lawmakers participated in a conference call with senior White House
adviser Valerie Jarrett. The lawmakers voiced their reservations
but made no headway with Jarrett, who thanked them for their
opinions, according to congressional aides who spoke on condition
of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Internally at the White House, Biden, then-Chief of Staff Bill
Daley and deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough, all
Catholics, raised concerns about how the administration proceeded
on the policy. On the other side, senior White House advisers
Nancy-Ann DeParle, Pete Rouse and David Plouffe argued for the need to ensure coverage for all without exception, as a matter of
women's health and fairness.
Three Democratic senators - Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire,
Patty Murray of Washington state and Boxer - pressed for making
birth control coverage widely available.
The discussions were described by administration officials who
spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private talks.
Associated Press writers Ben Feller, Erica Werner, Jim Kuhnhenn
and Alan Fram in Washington and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala.,
contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)