Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012 | 2:29 p.m.
WASHINGTON - If you can’t beat em, join ‘em -- and then beat ‘em on the Senate floor. That’s the philosophy Sen. Harry Reid adopted today, when he agreed to hold a vote on a Republican-backed amendment that would let employers opt out of providing coverage for any service they deem morally or religiously objectionable.
Reid had resisted Republicans’ efforts, led by Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, to vote on the matter as part of the debate over transportation funding. The measure is part of a protracted debate between Republicans and the White House over whether the federal government could require religious institutions to provide contraception coverage to women.
But Republicans pushed back: This weekend, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell flatly said on Face the Nation that “the issue will not go away.”
With the parties at an impasse, Reid said Tuesday he agreed to let the vote take place to preserve progress on the highway bill.
“After discussing it with numerous senators I decided that we should just set up a vote…there’s been enough delay on this bill,” Reid said today, announcing that a vote on the amendment inspired by the contraception controversy would take place Thursday.
Many Democrats weren’t happy about it.
“In order to move forward on that jobs bill, where 2.8 million jobs are at stake, we have to have a vote on birth control. I just want to say to my friend on the other side of the aisle: What are you thinking?” said Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. “The Blunt amendment would say that any insurance company and any employer for any reason could deny coverage...it’s not just about birth control, it’s any service.”
In Nevada, the contraception issue has become a political flash point.
Republican Sen. Dean Heller has criticized the Obama administration for its various attempts to ensure female employees of religiously sponsored institutions have access to birth control and other forms of contraception. He called on Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to back off religious institutions earlier in February, is expected to support the amendment Blunt is putting forward.
Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, who is challenging Heller for the Senate, leapt on Heller’s criticism of Obama’s contraception policies earlier this month, and spent the rest of February pounding him for the “anti-woman” positions of the Republican Party, as she put it. Berkley won’t be voting on the Senate legislation Thursday, but has said that a vote for the Blunt amendment is an anti-woman vote.
Reid added that once the Blunt amendment is voted on, he expects to allow votes on other amendments that have nothing to do with transportation, including a measure by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky (son of presidential candidate Ron Paul) that would suspend foreign aid to Egypt. All such amendments are expected to have to meet a filibuster-proof threshold to pass.
“Yes, yes, yes we allow votes on unrelated amendments,” Reid told reporters asking about his plans for the transportation bill.
But one that won’t make the list is by Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska that would strip lines from the transportation bill allowing Nevada to take unspent maglev-rail funds and put them to general transportation use. Johanns says the language is an earmark, but both Reid and Heller disagree.
There’s about a hundred amendments that they’ve filed,” Reid said when asked about the Johanns amendment. “We’re not going to be able to deal with every one of them, and I don’t intend to deal with every one of them.”
Reid said Tuesday he expects to be able to work through the full transportation bill by the end of next week.