Congressional Democrats vowed Wednesday to bypass the Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case, unveiling new legislation that would require all employers to pay for contraception as part of the health-care mandates included in the Affordable Care Act.
The legislation comes a week after the high court ruled that many private companies – including plaintiff Hobby Lobby craft stores – were within their rights to seek an exemption from the contraception mandate if they could cite a religious objection to providing health plans that include some kinds of birth control.
That ruling outraged Democrats and women’s groups, who vowed to pass legislation that would require all employers to cover contraception.
“Women across the country are outraged, they are demanding a change,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “And today . . . we are here to be their voice.”
The legislation, being introduced by Democrats in both the Senate and the House, would require all employers to abide by the contraception mandate included in the Affordable Care Act – even if they claim religious objections.
The bill would override the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, forcing most employers to comply with federal health-care requirements despite their religious objections. It would, however, include an exemption for houses of worship and an accommodation for religious nonprofits.
Efforts to craft the legislation were spearheaded by Murray and Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., among others. In the House, the effort is being led by Reps. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y.
“Ninety-nine percent of women – our sisters, daughters, friends, colleagues, and neighbors – will use some form of birth control in their lifetime, and strong majorities of Americans support the notion that women should be able to make their reproductive care decisions without interference from their employer,” said Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the top Democrat on the Senate Health Committee and the author of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. “The Protect Women’s Health from Corporate Interference Act reinstates the ACA’s contraceptive coverage and protects the right of all Americans, men and women alike, to make decisions about their medical care in consultation with their doctor, not their boss.”
Still unclear is whether Democrats can muster the votes to turn this legislation into law.
Even with a slight majority in the Senate, it is not a certainty that all of the Democratic senators – especially those facing tight re-election bids in conservative states – would be willing to vote in favor of it.
One encouraging sign for the bill’s sponsors was that Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, was openly supportive.
“There are so many women in Alaska who will be affected,” Begich said. “It’s something that’s woken up the women of Alaska, what’s happening here in D.C.”
But even if Democrats can keep their caucus in line, they also must convince at least five Republicans in the Senate to support the legislation. Democrats conceded Wednesday that they do not have any Republican co-sponsors for the bill in the Senate or the House and that no Republican lawmaker had publicly voiced support for the proposal.
“The women of America . . . are saying it: It is not our boss’s business, it is our business what kind of health care we need,” DeGette said. “That’s why we invite our Republican colleagues to join us in this effort.”
Lack of bipartisan support in the Senate has been the death knell for several other high-profile proposal this year, such as a minimum-wage increase and a paycheck-fairness bill.
Even if the legislation is unsuccessful, political strategists on both sides of the aisle anticipate that the Democrats will attempt to use the issue to turn out voters during the midterms. Democrats are working to hold onto control of the Senate while not losing more ground in the House, where they are in the minority.
But Democrats who are working on the legislation insist that it is too soon to discuss the political implications, even as they say that it is an issue that will mobilize voters.
“Right now we have a decision that said to women in this country that your boss’s religion is more important than yours,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “My view is that women are already mobilizing.”