Published in POLITICO
House Republican leaders are taking their foot off the gas, slowing down plans to pass legislation taking aim at the Obama administration’s contraception coverage requirement, according to sources close to leadership.
The Senate’s defeat of similar legislation last week means a House-passed version won’t become law. Although this House has passed several other reproductive health bills it knew would never make it through the Senate, some Republicans have lost their appetite for such symbolic votes as the November election comes closer.
“I think the Senate already took action and we’ve got a lot else on our plate,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is running for Senate.
Some Democrats, like New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, argue that the Republicans have overplayed this issue, potentially alienating some women swing voters and galvanizing young women who hadn’t been too engaged so far this election year. The Sandra Fluke-Rush Limbaugh controversy has only added fuel to the fire. Democrats are calling on Republicans to condemn Limbaugh, while Republicans are trying to shift the conversation to things like rising gas prices.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act” has been pending in the House for months, and it would likely pass easily if brought to the floor. More than half the House — 219 members — have already signed on as co-sponsors to the bill, the companion to the measure defeated in the Senate last week sponsored by Missouri Republican Roy Blunt.
A source close to top House Republicans said that they’ve concluded they need to “win the debate and then win the policy.” The House will continue to hold hearings, but leaders now believe the “long-term play” is more important than an easy vote in one chamber that doesn’t actually change the administration’s contraception policy.
Speaker John Boehner sounded notably cooler to the idea of pushing ahead with the Fortenberry bill almost as soon as it became clear that the Senate would defeat Blunt’s legislation. His spokesman Michael Steel, suggested Tuesday that it was up to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton to determine when the legislation would move forward.
“The bill has been referred to E&C. As the speaker has said, we intend to address the issue of protecting religious liberty carefully and deliberatively, and the committee and the Conference are determining the path forward,” Steel said.
But in a rare floor speech on Feb. 8 — blasted to his press list under the title “House Will Act to Reverse Obama Administration Attack on Religious Freedom” — Boehner had appeared to commit his chamber to acting soon.
“If the president does not reverse the department’s attack on religious freedom, then the Congress, acting on behalf of the American people and the Constitution we are sworn to uphold and defend, must,” he said, though he still called for proceeding through regular legislative order.
His remarks last week — that the House would “decide on how we will proceed” — were more subdued.
It’s a bit of a mystery why Upton has not scheduled a markup of the Fortenberry bill. Multiple other committees have held hearings on the rule since it was issued, and Upton is a co-sponsor of the legislation.
Energy and Commerce Committee spokeswoman Debbee Keller said that although no hearing has been scheduled, members are “continuing to work” on how to move forward.
“Our members, like Americans all across the country, were deeply troubled by the administration’s regulation that threatens religious liberty and the ‘accommodation’ that continues to draw widespread opposition among faith leaders. Chairmen Upton and Pitts are continuing to work with members on and off the committee on how Congress can restore the conscience protections now at risk,” Keller said.
Rep. Renee Ellmers, (R-N.C.) explained the delay was temporary and expected that the House would return to the issue soon.
“I think what is happening right now is that the Fortenberry bill is there, and we know it’s there,” she said. “We’re on a strict timeline with the transportation bill because it expires by the end of the month, I think that’s kind of taken precedence.”
While sources in the anti-abortion movement say they still believe the House leadership is firmly in favor of the bill, the delay in voting is beginning to cause some concern.
“There’s a frustration on our end, so we’re pushing them to set dates,” said Tom McClusky, senior vice president of Family Research Council Action. “In our opinion, the sooner the better. There’s got to be a vote before … November.”
Democrats see the fight over Blunt and Fortenberry’s bill as a winning issue for them. Disparaging remarks made by conservative radio host Limbaugh about Fluke, a Georgetown law student who testified before Democrats about the contraception mandate, caused a firestorm on and off the Hill, pushing the debate further into the limelight.
“I think Rush Limbaugh was very unhelpful to Republicans in this. This issue is about women’s health and Rush Limbaugh ceded that ground to us when he personally attacked a young woman who spoke out about it. Republicans have a hard time defending that,” said a Democratic leadership aide.
“We’ve always argued this is a women’s health issue. I imagine Republicans are cooling their heels on this, but we are ready for them if they want to bring it up. We see it as a winning issue,” the aide added.