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Birth control amendment rejected by Senate

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Blunt (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

In a win for Democrats, the Senate voted Thursday to table an amendment permitting employers and insurers to opt out of provisions in President Obama's health care proposal on moral or religious grounds.

The Senate voted 51-48 to kill the amendment, which was offered by Senate Republican Minority Leader Roy Blunt of Missouri as an add-on to the transportation funding bill. Blunt and fellow Republicans cast the amendment as a fight to protect First Amendment rights (which include the freedom of religion.) Prior to the vote, Blunt argued that the language should be deemed noncontroversial by his colleagues, stating on the Senate floor that every member of the Senate, barring some of the most recently elected members, "have voted for bills that have this language in them."

But Democrats said the amendment would limit access to contraception and infringe on women's rights at a time when Congress needs to focus on the economy and employment. "These aren't the issues we should be debating right now," Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said on the Senate floor.

Following Thursday's vote, Blunt accused Democrats of playing politics with the issue.

"I am truly disappointed by the partisanship that has been injected into this debate on religious freedoms," Blunt said in a statement. "Instead of working to pass a bipartisan measure that has been part of our law for almost 40 years, this debate has been burdened by outlandish and divisive efforts to misinform and frighten Americans."

Blunt added that he will continue to fight this issue.

The future of Thursday's amendment in the closely-divided Senate hung on decisions from a handful of Senate centrists. Retiring Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine voted with the majority of Democrats to table the amendment, while three centrist Democrats-- Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska-- crossed party lines to vote with Republicans in favor of the amendment.

The president recently proposed a mandate requiring all employers to offer health insurance that fully covers contraception, including institutions such as colleges and businesses connected to Catholic churches, for example, that may oppose contraception on religious grounds. The proposal sparked significant controversy, angering those who viewed the proposal as an attack on religious liberties as well as many Catholic bishops and other religious groups.

In response, the president announced an "accommodation" for institutions that object to the mandate, putting the onus on health insurers instead of employers to provide full coverage for contraception and other women's health services.

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