WASHINGTON — The debate over President Barack Obama’s policy on contraceptive coverage is likely to persist, with the two sides struggling to frame the issue as either one over access to birth control or of religious freedom.
A compromise Obama offered last week that would force health insurers, and not religious-affiliated charities, to pay for contraceptives for employees of those institutions may have moved him off the defensive. Still, Republicans said it will be an election issue and vowed to push for a measure in Congress to repeal the policy, a vote that could come as early as this week.
Whoever is more successful at defining the dispute is likely to prevail with the electorate on the policy, pollsters and political strategists say.
“How it’s framed is very important,” said Terry Madonna, a political science professor and director of the Franklin & Marshall College poll in Lancaster, Pa. Access to contraception and equal treatment of women in workplace-benefit plans both resonate with college-educated women, he said.
Obama and supporters of his policy say women deserve a way to obtain contraceptive services free of charge and that the president’s revision of the rule should satisfy religious-affiliated institutions because it allows them to avoid paying directly for birth control.
Critics, including Republican presidential candidates and congressional leaders, as well as groups such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, say the policy encroaches on the prerogatives of religious entities.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said the policy will have traction in the election campaign because it’s an example of the administration overreaching on health care and interfering with religious freedom. Blunt is proposing that those offering health plans be allowed to decline to offer services that are contrary to their religious beliefs.
The Senate will vote this week on one or more measures that would seek to repeal or modify the administration’s rule, said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. The vote will include Blunt’s proposal, and perhaps an alternative that would be offered by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., he said.
A group of 44 conservative leaders, including Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, and Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, issued individual statements of opposition in a “united front” to fight the policy.
At the same time, NARAL Pro-Choice America Monday began airing radio ads in the battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Virginia and Wisconsin, touting the policy as an example of Obama’s commitment to women. They say Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates who oppose the policy are extremists who want to limit access to birth control.
The Obama campaign team mentioned the contraception policy on a “Truth Team” website it introduced Monday as an online resource to respond to criticisms of the president’s record “and hold the eventual Republican nominee accountable.”
John Feehery, a Republican strategist in Washington, said the controversy boosts Republican criticism that the 2010 health-care overhaul backed by Obama was an overextension of government. “This helps chip away at that accomplishment,” Feehery said.
That message is delivered most effectively when religious groups such as the Catholic Church lead the campaign against the rule, he said. “Having them as the messenger is important to Republicans.”
The Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a blog posting Monday on its website that the group isn’t satisfied with Obama’s compromise and supports legislative efforts to repeal the policy. The group added that “the bishops did not pick this fight in an election year.”
Beth Shipp, NARAL’s political director, said female voters should be worried that Republicans, including presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, want to take away their access to birth control.
“It’s not about religious freedom and liberty — it never has been,” Shipp said. “It was about getting at the Affordable Care Act and trying to gut it piece by piece and about not wanting women to have access to contraception.”
While Republican presidential hopefuls are eager to show they oppose the policy now, their stances won’t play as well to a general election audience in which almost all women have used some method of contraception, she said.
In the NARAL ad, a pharmacist tells a woman her birth control pills are free because of Obama. A narrator says, “we scored an important victory” for women “of all faiths, no matter where they work” and warns that “extremists” in Congress want to undo the benefit.
By announcing that insurers and not the religious employers will be required to offer and pay for the coverage, the president said he hoped to ease concerns of religious groups while keeping his commitment to broadly make contraceptives available to women.
“I understand some folks in Washington may want to treat this as another political wedge issue, but it shouldn’t be,” Obama said. “I certainly never saw it that way.”
An Obama campaign official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the campaign will continue to press the contraception decision as an accomplishment between now and November, through emails, at events and in outreach to women.
Catholics comprise about one in four U.S. voters according to exit polls. Yet Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College, said that of a dozen or so battleground states that include Pennsylvania, many female swing voters “are college-educated women who tend to be more liberal on social issues and more fiscally conservative.”
“You find a fair number of college-educated women who, I think, will side with the president on this,” he said. “Particularly the way it was framed as, ‘we compromised,’ making the point it’s still available to women without making the church pay for it.”