WASHINGTON — A bill introduced by Sen. Patty Murray to bypass a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on contraceptives failed a key vote Wednesday, blocking Senate Democrats’ attempt to restore insurance coverage for some women whose employers may object to paying for certain forms of birth control.
The 56-43 vote largely along party lines, however, succeeded in drawing a sharp ideological distinction ahead of the November midterm election.
Murray’s measure needed 60 votes to cut off debate and to move on to a final vote. Three Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mark Kirk of Illinois — sided with Democrats; Majority Leader Harry Reid switched his vote to no as a procedural move so he could bring up the measure again later. Democrats have a 55-45 majority in the Senate.
A companion bill in the House is unlikely to get a vote in that Republican-controlled chamber.
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Democrats and the White House had pushed the legislation as a way to preserve women’s right to federally mandated health benefits without their employers’ involvement. Republicans, on the other hand, defended the high court’s decision as protecting the rights of family-owned businesses to exercise their freedom of religion. They argued women could still obtain disputed contraceptives in other ways.
The conservative Heritage Foundation’s political arm warned lawmakers ahead of the vote their positions on the “misleadingly named” Protect Women’s Health from Corporate Interference Act would be entered into its legislative score card.
On the Senate floor, Sen. Maria Cantwell said allowing the court’s ruling to stand would hurt some women’s health and their pocketbooks.
Murray called contraceptives an essential coverage, not an “a la carte” option.
Republicans, among them Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, accused Democrats Wednesday of deception and scaremongering.
Nothing in the court’s decision “allows a company to stop a woman from getting or filling a prescription for contraception,” Ayotte said.
Murray and her chief co-sponsor, Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., filed the bill last Wednesday in response to the June 30 ruling by the high court in a case involving two Christian family-owned corporations.
Hobby Lobby, a craft-store chain, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a specialty cabinet maker, objected to having to provide coverage for emergency contraceptives. They believe the pills block fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus, which they regard as tantamount to abortion.
Scientists, however, say the so-called morning-after pills sold under Plan B and other brand names work by preventing conception, by delaying the release of eggs from ovaries and by impeding the sperm’s journey to the egg.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that closely held for-profit corporations — not just individuals — were protected under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says the government shall not “substantially burden” a person’s exercise of religion.
Contraceptives are among a host of preventive services that all health plans must cover without copays and coinsurance under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Without insurance, emergency contraceptives cost an average of $45, according to The Journal of the American Medical Association.