Updated at 12:55 PM ET
The Senate Thursday defeated a proposal that would have allowed employers and health plans regulated by the 2010 health care law to opt out of paying for medical services that are contrary to their religious beliefs or moral convictions.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., center, leads a Senate Democrats news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 1, 2012, after the defeat of a Republican effort to roll back President Barack Obama's policy on contraception insurance coverage. From left are Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Reid, and Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin of Ill.
The vote to defeat the proposal was 51 to 48, with one Republican, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, voting with 50 Democrats against the amendment offered by Sen. Roy Blunt, R- Mo.
Three Democrats, Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voted with most Republicans for the proposal. Casey and Manchin are up for re-election this November.
Thursday’s vote is likely to be a litmus test that will be used by both Democrats and Republicans in Senate campaigns in the fall.
Among Republicans in competitive or potentially competitive Senate races, Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts voted for the Blunt amendment, as did Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada and Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana.
Seeking to capitalize on Thursday's vote, National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Lance Trover assailed a Democratic Senate candidate, Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who voted for the 2010 health care bill, for "her unabashed support of ObamaCare, which not only forces every Wisconsinite to buy health insurance, but also mandates what services employers have to provide.”
In contrast, Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said, "This is an important victory. Today’s vote says that your boss won’t be able to decide which prescriptions you can get filled and which medical procedures you can have."
Blunt and his allies said it was necessary to protect the First Amendment conscience rights of religiously affiliated employers to not pay for medical services such as contraceptives that they oppose on moral grounds.
Lining up on the other side were senators, mostly Democrats, who said that Blunt and his allies were trying to deny women necessary medical services that should be paid for by employers under the Affordable Care Act.
Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney created confusion on the eve of Thursday’s Senate vote by first telling a reporter in Ohio that he opposed the Blunt amendment, but then shortly after saying he’d misunderstood the reporter’s question and did in fact support the amendment.
Adding to the embarrassment for Romney was the fact that Blunt is his most prominent supporter in the Senate. “Of course Roy Blunt, who is my liaison to the Senate, is someone I support, and of course I support that amendment,” Romney told Boston radio host Howie Carr.
In the 2010 health care overhaul, Congress gave the secretary of Health and Human Services the power to decide exactly what services must be paid for by most employers and their insurance plans as “essential health benefits.”
Three weeks ago, President Barack Obama tried to defuse a controversy over religious affiliated employers covering contraceptives by requiring their insurance plans to pay for them – but that leaves the problem of those employers who self-insure.
A supporter of the Blunt amendment, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R- N.H., told the Senate Wednesday that “this debate comes down to the legacy left behind by our Founding Fathers.… We have a choice between being responsible stewards of their legacy as reflected in the First Amendment to the Constitution, or allowing the federal government to interfere in religious life in an unprecedented way…. If we allow the government to dictate the coverage and plans paid for by a religious institution, that’s the first step down a slippery slope.”
Leading the opposition to the Blunt proposal, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D- Calif., said “right-wing Republicans” were “trying to take away women’s health care.”
The Blunt amendment, she said, “not only says that any insurer or any employer for any reason could stop women from getting access to contraception, it could also stop all of our families from getting access to essential health care services….”
She said that under the Blunt amendment if an employer had a moral objection to an employee who smoked, the employer would be able to deny smoking cessation treatment to that employee.
She gave another hypothetical of an employer who refuses to pay for diabetes treatment: “Someone who may have diabetes, and the employer or the insurer says, ‘You know what? That was your problem; you ate too much sugar as a kid. Too bad.’”.