Democrats seek cash, votes in clash over contraceptives

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 1, 2012 

WASHINGTON — Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., says some Republicans are "waging war" against women by opposing insurance coverage for contraceptives, but, she said, there's an easy way to fight back: Send $5 or $10 to help get more Democratic women elected to the Senate.

With public opinion polls showing broad acceptance of contraceptive coverage, many Democrats are eager to capitalize on what they perceive to be a series of Republican missteps on the hot issue, confident that it will capture cash now and votes in November.

They won the latest clash Thursday, when the Senate rejected a plan offered by Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri that would have allowed employers and insurers to deny coverage for contraceptives and other health care services if they found them to be morally or religiously objectionable.

The Senate voted 51-48 to table the amendment, effectively killing it.

Democrats prevailed as they complained that the language in Blunt's amendment was far too broad.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats are seeking to ignite their political base using all the tools they have: speeches, news conferences, online petitions, Facebook and Twitter. And while Murray is busy raising money for Senate candidates in her role as the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which raises cash for candidates in the House of Representatives, has sent out a steady stream of emails to its potential donors, too.

Many Republicans are equally energized, convinced that President Barack Obama launched an all-out assault on religious freedom with his executive order requiring health plans to cover birth control. While Obama quickly reversed course to exclude religious employers, that's done little to stop the searing criticism.

Thursday, the Democratic House campaign committee said it already had received 450,000 signatures from opponents of the "Republican War on Women" and that online donors had sent in $1.1 million in a week. DCCC Chairman Rep. Steve Israel of New York said the outpouring of support had "shattered every record." Fundraising picked up quickly last week after Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California expressed outrage when Republicans wouldn't allow a woman who backed contraception coverage to testify at a House hearing.

A new Kaiser healthy policy poll this week carried more good news for Democrats: It found that 63 percent of Americans support a requirement that private health plans cover the cost of birth control, while 33 percent oppose it.

David Schultz, a professor and expert in government and business ethics at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., said Republicans wanted the issue to help them offset "the lethargy, or the lack of enthusiasm" that many conservatives were expressing in the GOP presidential race. But he said the issue could help Democrats attract more swing voters next fall, especially suburban women.

"If they can frame this as a women's rights issue, a war against women, then I think it helps them, because they already benefit tremendously from a pretty good gender gap," Schultz said.

After Thursday's vote, Murray said that women and families now could "breathe a sigh of relief" but must remain vigilant against Republicans: "They seem to believe that their path to victory on Election Day runs straight through the women's health clinic."

Despite the setback, Blunt and other Republicans said the fight would go on.

Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, who backed Blunt's amendment, said Obama's plan showed how big government could trample religious freedoms.

"What we have is a government that is saying, `We do not care what we are telling you to do because we think it is the right thing to do, regardless of your religious beliefs,' " Risch said. "It is wrong. It has to be fought."

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas read the First Amendment of the Constitution to his colleagues Wednesday, saying Congress "shall make no law" prohibiting the free exercise of religion. And he said Democrats were trying to "make political hay" and leading people to believe that the debate was about contraception.

"This is about protecting our sacred constitutional freedoms," Cornyn said.

The issue has provided plenty of ammunition for Murray.

A top financial contributor to Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said last month that women in the past could avoid pregnancy by holding aspirin tablets between their knees. While Santorum dismissed the remark as a joke, Murray denounced it in a speech on the Senate floor, saying she was appalled. Then she fired off a fundraising letter.

"If you see what they're doing and your jaw clenches," Murray said in her letter, "make an immediate donation to the DSCC. ... Can I count on your help?"

As the debate took center stage on Capitol Hill this week, California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer on Wednesday showed reporters a huge photograph of an all-male panel addressing a House committee on the issues of religious freedom and contraceptives last month.

"They're talking about contraception, they're talking about birth control, they're talking about giving birth, and not one of them ever gave birth," Boxer said.

Santorum, who's said he doesn't believe in contraceptives and that they encourage sex outside of marriage, said at a presidential debate in Arizona last week that more than 40 percent of the children born in the United States were born to single mothers in poor families.

"There are bigger problems at stake in America. And someone has got to go out there — I will — and talk about the things," Santorum said.

At the same debate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said Obama's "attack" on religious freedoms was unprecedented.

"I don't think we've seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we've seen under Barack Obama," he said.

At a news conference Wednesday, Murray, Boxer and other Democrats stood next to group of nurses, obstetricians and gynecologists in white jackets who came to lobby against Blunt's amendment.

Hal Lawrence, the executive vice president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, noted that in 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared family planning one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the last century.

"Contraception improves and saves babies' lives" he said.

Murray already has sent at least two fundraising letters related to the issue. In one of them, she said Democrats needed to make sure that Republicans didn't win a majority of Senate seats or the White House, which she warned would give them "total control of Washington."

"Then they'll subject all of us to the draconian ideas," Murray wrote.

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