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Blunt assails critics' 'fiction' as Senate liberals blast 'conscience' amendment

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 29, 2012 - WASHINGTON – Praised by allies as a defender of religious liberty and denounced by critics for “politics masquerading as morality,” U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt became the lightning rod at the center of the Senate’s fierce debate Wednesday on his “rights of conscience” amendment.

With a vote on the amendment scheduled for Thursday, Blunt, R-Mo., and six GOP allies spent an hour defending the amendment, which they contended was a principled and well-established proposal to block health-care mandates that interfere with constitutional “rights of conscience,” including religious beliefs.

But an array of Senate critics, including six Democrats who also staged a Capitol news conference that featured a white-jacketed doctor and nurses who oppose the Missourian’s proposal, attacked Blunt’s amendment as “extreme,” “sinister” and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” that used “conscience rights” as a cover to allow employers to undermine cost-free access to contraceptives and other preventive health services.

“This debate is not about religious freedom,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “It’s about allowing providers and employers the right to deny access to care” by claiming a religious or moral objection to the procedure. 

Citing federal health data, Feinstein and other Democratic senators said that as many as 20 million women, including 400,000 in Missouri, will get preventive health care under the Affordable Care Act without a cost share. In theory, they argued, those women could be put at risk of losing access to such cost-free services if employers would refuse to cover them. In addition to contraception, such services include mammograms, prenatal screenings and cervical cancer screenings. 

Such assertions were disputed by Blunt and his allies who spoke Wednesday in favor of the amendment. In his Senate remarks, Blunt criticized “the fiction writers out there and fundraising letters ...  saying things like women who have contraceptive services today wouldn’t have them” under the Blunt amendment. “Of course that’s not true,” Blunt asserted, noting that the measure “doesn’t mention any procedure of any kind.”

Blunt said, “The women who have those services today either have them because they’ve found a way to pay for them themselves or they have an employer who’s providing that as part of health care.” He added: “That employer’s not going to be able to turn around and say, ‘I’m not for that anymore because I object for some religious reason that I didn’t have all the time I was providing it.'”

But critics said it was a Pandora’s box that would open the doors to thousands of lawsuits related to employers’ claims of religious or moral objections to a wide range of preventive health procedures. “It is overly broad, vague, and it violates the core principle of privacy,” argued Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who said it would “create jobs only for lawyers.”

At the news conference in the Capitol, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., denounced Blunt’s amendment as “politics masquerading as morality.” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called it a “desperate strategy” by radical Republicans. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., called it “dangerous to the health of the American people.” And Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., claimed it would “turn back the clock on women’s health care.”

But a GOP woman senator, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., an original cosponsor of the Blunt measure, bemoaned the “mischaracterizations and distortions” by opponents – many of them Democratic women. She said the issue “has been used as an election-year tactic to score political points.”

“Many have tried to characterize this amendment as denying women access to contraception. That’s a red herring, and it's false,” said Ayotte in a Senate speech. “We are talking about government mandates that are interfering with conscience protections here that have long been engrained in our law.”

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., asserted that “this issue has been reframed for political purposes into a women’s right to choose, into denying women the opportunity to exercise their right to make their choice because that is not what this is about at all… [T]his clearly is a fundamental principle of religious freedom that needs to be protected – regardless of the political consequences.”

And there seemed likely to be political consequences for some lawmakers. Feinstein said her office had heard from 11,500 Californians opposing the amendment in a single day. Other senators also reported lots of emails and other communications on both sides of the issue.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has urged churchgoers to support Blunt’s amendment, and this week the National Association of Evangelicals – representing 40 Christian evangelical denominations with 45,000 congregations – expressed its support for Blunt’s measure. “The bill is necessary because federal regulations now fail to respect the right of religious employers to provide health-insurance benefits consistent with their most deeply held religious beliefs,” the association said in a statement.

Richard M. Doerflinger, who heads the Catholic bishop's "Pro-Life activities" secretariat, wrote in an email to Senate staffers that Blunt's amendment "has been subjected to irresponsible accusations that it would greatly expand the ability of employers and others to delete beneficial services from the health plans they now sponsor." He said that, in reality "it is impossible for the Blunt amendment to take away any coverage people have now" -- mainly because it "does not modify state or federal laws that are now in effect."

One issue that is in dispute is whether other health laws – before the Affordable Care Act – used language similar to the Blunt amendment to protect rights of conscience.

Blunt contends – in his Senate speech, in a “pop quiz” and a fact sheet on his website – that his amendment simply mirrors the legislative language, including phrases from bills backed by liberals, such as the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., which make exemptions on conscience issues.

“This exact language, of ‘religious belief or moral conviction,’ was first used in 1973 in the Public Health Services Act,” Blunt said, asserting that his amendment was needed because the Affordable Care Act marked “the first time that the federal government has passed a health-care bill that did not include this language.”

But several Democrats disagreed. “Nonsense,” said Boxer, when asked about Blunt’s assertion that his amendment’s wording has many precedents. “We have not seen a conscience clause for insurance companies before. And we have never seen it for all employers” in addition to religious and religion-affiliated employers.

“I couldn’t disagree more” with Blunt’s list of precedents, said Murray. “This [amendment] is, as Sen. Feinstein said, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” 

Several GOP senators who spoke Wednesday in favor of Blunt’s amendment accused liberal Democrats of distorting its impact. Sen. Mike Johans, R-Neb., criticized senators who “somehow veil this as a women’s rights issue. This debate is not about that.”

And Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, argued that opponents had turned the debate over Blunt’s amendment “into a purely partisan issue” and were trying to “make political hay by scaring people, by misleading people, that this is somehow about denying women access to contraception – when that is not the issue here.”

But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the Senate’s health committee, argued that the amendment is “a Blunt instrument” that, if it became law, “would basically dismantle the health-reform law and the protections that it provides to millions of Americans.”

In a statement late Wednesday, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius opposed the Blunt amendment as "dangerous and wrong," asserting that it "would allow employers that have no religious affiliation to exclude coverage of any health service, no matter how important, in the health plan they offer to their workers." She added: "The Obama administration believes that decisions about medical care should be made by a woman and her doctor, not a woman and her boss. We encourage the Senate to reject this cynical attempt to roll back decades of progress in women’s health."

The debate over the Blunt amendment reached the GOP presidential campaign Wednesday, with front-runner Mitt Romney at first telling an Ohio News Network reporter that he did not back it, but later clarifying on Boston radio show that: "Of course I support the Blunt amendment. I thought [the Ohio reporter] was talking about some state law that prevented people from getting contraception so I was simply -- misunderstood the question . . . "

Romney pointed out that Blunt is his point man in lining up support on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, both sides criticized Romney on the issue. On the right, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum touted his support of such religious liberty initiatives during an appearance in Tennessee, and his campaign criticized Romney for having a "liberal record" on freedom of religion.

Obama's reelection campaign also went on the attack, with deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter writing to supporters: "For a brief moment this afternoon, it looked like Mitt Romney was showing some spine and opposing the [Blunt] proposal. But literally within minutes, his campaign walked it back . . . If the bill passes, you can thank Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum's support for helping to pave the way for this anti-contraception agenda." END UPDATE