Controversial birth control mandate divides N.D., Minn. congressional leaders

Senate stalls broad exemptions to controversial birth control mandate; House to take up battle

President Barack Obama signs the Affordable Care Act into law on March 23, 2010. (Photo:

FARGO – The constitutional battle over religious freedom and government-mandated health care might not be settled following a particularly partisan vote Thursday in the U.S. Senate.

The Senate halted a controversial amendment that would’ve given employers and insurers broad discretion in denying health care coverage for any service they found “morally objectionable,” particularly birth control.

The narrow vote was the latest in a recent battle over requirements in the 2010 health care reform act, which mandates employers provide free coverage of preventative services to women.

The provision stirred up fury a few weeks ago among Catholics and other religious groups, prompting President Obama to exempt them from the mandate for First Amendment reasons.

Senate Republicans aimed to strengthen that exemption Thursday by pushing for the so-called Blunt Amendment, named for its sponsor Missouri Republican Roy Blunt.

By a narrow Democratic victory, though, the Senate tabled the measure with a 51-48 vote. Sole GOP support came from Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe.

Minnesota’s Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar and North Dakota’s Kent Conrad joined the majority in halting the amendment.

North Dakota Republican John Hoeven voted against tabling it

North Dakota Republican John Hoeven voted against tabling it, joining fellow Republicans who heralded the amendment as a defense of religious liberties. The amendment had been attached to an unrelated transportation bill in the Senate.

MORE: Click here to read each member's position on the contraception mandate, as well as the positions of the 11 candidates for federal office in North Dakota.

Democrats said the proposal went too far in giving employers and insurers the power to opt out of any provision in the health care reform act, which Republicans aim to repeal.

The issue could be put to bed in the U.S. Senate, but a few measures circling in the U.S. House will keep it on Congress’ radar.

While a vote hasn’t yet been set, House Speaker John Boehner indicated Thursday he remains committed to the fight.

“It’s important for us to win this issue,” Boehner told reporters on Capitol Hill. “The government is moving in a direction that would force some Americans to violate their religious beliefs. This is wrong, and we want to stop it.”

Minnesota and North Dakota’s congressional leaders remain generally split along party lines on the debate, as are the dozen congressional candidates this year in North Dakota.

Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson – a pro-life Democrat – is the outlier among the region’s elected delegation.

He supports the House’s version of the Blunt Amendment, along with 214 other congressmen who’ve signed on to it, including North Dakota Republican Rep. Rick Berg.

“I am a strong supporter of protecting conscience rights,” Peterson said. “I believe that federal policy should respect the conscience rights of those who, for moral or religious reasons, oppose abortion.”

Rick Berg

Similarly, Berg decries the contraception mandate provision as “yet another example of the unprecedented overreach found in President Obama’s health care law.”

“President Obama fails to understand that religious liberty is not an accommodation; it’s a right,” Berg has said.  “North Dakotans did not want the president’s health care overhaul to begin with, and I will continue to fight to repeal both the law itself and the egregious mandates found in it.”

Among Democrats, Franken was one of the most vocal senators to oppose the Blunt Amendment. He firmly supports women’s rights, while agreeing with the exemption for religious groups.

Speaking on the Senate floor earlier this week, Franken said: “This proposal doesn’t simply put women’s access to birth control in the hands of their employers. It doesn’t simply allow politics to get between women and their doctors. It changes the way that health care is provided in our country.”

“And it violates a core belief in our society, that our religious decisions are our own,” Franken added, “and that each of us –every woman and man in our society – has the right to make decisions about our own health for ourselves and our families.”

Other Democrats, such as Conrad and Klobuchar cite more practical reasons – such as cost or general health care access – for their opposition.

“This goes far beyond addressing the legitimate concerns of the religious community in regard to contraception and could seriously jeopardize access to necessary care and services for millions of beneficiaries,” Conrad said.

Like his GOP colleagues, Hoeven has staunchly supported protecting religious freedoms from the mandates imposed by the health care act.

“I believe that Congress should protect the right for any person or institution to negotiate a health plan or render medical care without violating their deeply held values and religious beliefs, which is an accommodation that has continuously been preserved until now,” Hoeven wrote in a column published February in The Forum.

Meanwhile, among congressional hopefuls in North Dakota, the contraceptive mandate debate has been a heated campaign issue recently between both parties.

North Dakota Republicans have particularly criticized Democratic Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp for her general silence on the issue.

Heidi Heitkamp

Heitkamp said this week insurance companies should provide preventive services, such as contraception, but she was “troubled” by the recent debate in Washington.

“The issue has been settled in a way that does not require religious institutions to pay for contraception,” Heitkamp said, referencing Obama’s compromise. “These bills, if passed, would allow any employer, for almost any reason, to take away preventative care of all kinds that women already have and rely on.”

“I think most North Dakotans want to keep their health coverage and want their bosses to stay out of their private health care decisions – just as they want the government to give an exemption to churches,” she added.