WASHINGTON — The fight over the contraception mandate in the health care law will not likely determine which party wins the White House and Senate next fall.
But Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri has played a leading role in ensuring that it becomes part of the campaign debate. In a year when political margins in many contests are expected to be close, his efforts could have an impact.
The Senate is expected to vote Thursday on Blunt's measure to repeal an Obama administration rule requiring most health insurers to cover contraceptives for women. He wants to allow employers and insurers to deny coverage for health care services beyond birth control if those companies have either religious or moral objections.
While Republicans have publicly supported Blunt, some are anxious about the growing role that cultural issues have begun to play in the campaign.
In close contests in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, the votes of moderate Republicans and independents — particularly women — in places such as suburban Philadelphia and Cleveland could be pivotal. Unlike with Republican primary voters, cultural issues are often not their paramount concern.
Asked this week whether her party should be focused on the contraception mandate, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said, "I don't think so. I think we've got way too much to be doing."
Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney said in an Ohio television interview Wednesday that he opposed the Blunt amendment.
"I'm not for the bill, but look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a women, husband and wife, I'm not going there," Romney said.
Campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul later said that the question was "confusing" and that Romney actually supports the amendment "because he believes in a conscience exemption in health care for religious institutions and people of faith."
The contraception mandate is a political live wire for social conservatives and for some religious groups — the Catholic bishops, among them — who see it as a threat to the First Amendment and religious freedom. By taking on the fight, Blunt has become their champion.
In a Senate debate Wednesday, he said that the government has a history of including so-called conscience clauses in certain programs and that Congress has a bipartisan record of doing so as well.
He said his amendment, part of a multi-year transportation funding bill, would extend "the same privilege to...others who have religious beliefs or moral convictions that would lead them to defend their moral convictions. We don't do anything about the mandate itself."
But critics argue his measure is overly broad and threatens a variety of preventive health care services for women, as well as children and men. They said it would mean employers who morally object to blood transfusions, homosexuality or interracial marriage could deny coverage to certain employees.
Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland said Blunt's amendment was "politics masquerading as morality."
"It allows any insurance company or any employer to deny coverage for any service they choose, based on a religious belief or a moral conviction," she said at a Democratic press conference attended by health care professionals representing nurses and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
"What is a moral conviction? I have moral convictions. You have moral convictions. We have different moral convictions. Any employer can do this, based on a vague abstraction."
Blunt's highly visible role reflects his rapid rise in the Senate after just 13 months. Romney chose him as his liaison to Capitol Hill, and Blunt recently became part of the Senate Republican leadership.
Blunt rose just as quickly in the House, where he was plucked for a leadership role in just his second term, and where he served for 14 years. But he was never a cultural warrior. His front-and-center role in the contraception debate is a departure from the quiet, behind-the-scenes insider's profile that he sculpted in the House.
"I think it's the right thing to do," said Matt Schlapp, a White House political director under former President George W. Bush. "The party will be in a better position when leaders take stands in support of our fundamental right, like the First Amendment."
Democrats want to make the issue about women and denying them access to health care.
"The Republican Party does not speak for most of the women in this country," said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.
Recent polls show that a slim majority of the public opposes Blunt's amendment, while a larger number supports a revised version of the contraception rule that the White House developed to mollify critics. It would require insurance companies to pay if religious-affiliated institutions, such as hospitals or universities, deny employee coverage for birth control.
But during the Senate debate, Blunt made an appeal to anyone who holds religious beliefs and might worry about government intrusion.
"If you're not offended by the current mandate," he said, "it's important to think of what you would be offended by, what in your faith would be an offensive thing you wouldn't want to be part of."
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