Thursday, March 1, 2012

To Be Blunt

The Senate will vote sometime today on the Blunt amendment to the transportation bill.

At issue is a measure sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri that would allow employers and insurers to opt out of provisions in Obama’s health care law to which they object on religious or moral grounds. That includes the recently rewritten requirement that insurers cover the cost of birth control, even for religiously affiliated employers whose faith forbids contraception.

“The word ‘contraception’ is not in (the legislation) because it’s not about a specific procedure,” Blunt said. “It’s about a faith principle that the First Amendment guarantees.”

But Democrats, trying this election year to hold onto support from female and independent voters, said the measure was really an effort to erode women’s rights generally and access to contraception in particular.

What it boils down to is that it would allow an employer to deny insurance coverage to an employee based on the employer’s personal faith and/or practice. So not only could they deny birth control coverage because they are Catholic, they could also deny hospital coverage if they’re a strict Christian Scientist, or blood transfusions if they’re a Jehovah’s Witness. Where does it end? Could Quakers deny coverage to someone who has PTSD from fighting in Iraq because they don’t believe in war? How far down the road can we go with this?

Apparently it’s a really tough question for Mitt Romney. Greg Sargent reports that he can’t make up his mind if he’s for it or against it.

Jim Heath, a reporter for ONN-TV in Ohio, just Tweeted a remarkable piece of news: Mitt Romney told him he does not support the Blunt amendment, which would empower employers and insurers to deny health coverage they find morally objectionable.

I just got off the phone with Heath, and he graciously played me the audio. Heath asks Romney if he’s for the “Blunt-Rubio” amendment, and defines it. Romney replies:

“I’m not for the bill. But, look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, husband and wife, I’m not going there.”

That’s pretty remarkable. If Romney knew what he was saying, the Senate GOP caucus, which is set to vote on this amendment tomorrow, may feel as if Romney has pulled the rug out from underneath them. And this has become an important issue for conservatives. So it’ll be interesting to see how the base reacts to this, particularly since the GOP primary is anything but over and Rick Santorum — who’s perceived as a more reliable social conservative — is likely to use this to attack Romney, who will be under continued pressure to connect with social and religious conservatives.

But then when Mr. Romney discovers what the Blunt amendment is really about, he’s all over it.

After conflicting reports over whether Mitt Romney told an Ohio TV reporter he opposed the Blunt amendment, which allows employers to deny health care coverage that conflicts with their conscience, the campaign clarified that Romney supports Sen. Roy Blunt’s (R-MO) legislation.

“Regarding the Blunt bill, the way the question was asked was confusing,” a spokesman told TPM. “Governor Romney supports the Blunt Bill because he believes in a conscience exemption in health care for religious institutions and people of faith.”

Apparently there are two pieces of legislation: one is the Blunt-Rubio amendment, which is only about contraception, and the plain Blunt amendment, described above. Mr. Romney thought the question was about the first one, which he’s against; not the second one, which he’s for.

It doesn’t matter. Both of them are terrible. And it is fiendlishly clever for the Senate Democrats to force a vote on it and get the Republicans on the record.