WASHINGTON — In a debate viewed largely as fodder for November’s general elections, the Senate last week defeated a measure on health insurance mandates.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., had proposed that employers be excused from providing federally mandated health benefits on religious or moral grounds.
Republicans said the measure was needed to roll back a requirement under President Barack Obama’s health care law that employers cover the cost of birth control starting in 2013.
Democrats called the proposed amendment — offered on a transportation policy bill by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., — an assault on women’s rights. They also argued it was vaguely written that employers and insurers could potentially opt out of nearly any medical treatment by citing a moral objection.
Democrats defeated the amendment on a 51-48 vote . Sen. Olympic Snowe, R-Maine, joined the Democrats while three Democrats — Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Ben Nelson of Nebraska — supported the GOP position.
Campaign operatives from both parties were quick to seize on the vote, issuing press statements that played to their respective bases.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee complained the amendment was part of a new Republican culture war being waged across the country. The National Republican Senatorial Committee argued that Democrats were waging a war on religious freedom.
Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., James Inhofe, R-Okla., Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and John Cornyn, R-Texas, voted for the Blunt amendment.
Bridge project clears hurdle
The House easily approved legislation aimed at fast-tracking the replacement for a decaying bridge between Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The bill passed 339-80 after a spirited debate in which opponents labeled the new Stillwater Lift Bridge a massive boondoggle while proponents argued that it is sorely needed.
The proposed $700 million project spanning the St. Croix River would replace an 82-year-old bridge that carries 18,000 cars per day between communities with a combined population of 5,086.
The Interior Department has stood in the way of the project, saying it would have a direct and adverse impact on the St. Croix River, which has been designated a wild and scenic river.
The bill would set the department’s opposition aside and allow the Department of Transportation to fund construction of the bridge that has been in the works for two decades.
“The longer we delay, the more unsafe the current lift bridge becomes, congestion continues to worsen, and costs just continue to rise. It’s time to end the gridlock,” said Rep. Thomas Petri, R-Wis.
The bill cleared the Senate by unanimous consent in January and is supported by most elected officials in Wisconsin and Minnesota, Petri noted.
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., argued that it is controversial and should be built at less cost and with the environment in mind.
McCollum noted that Taxpayers for Common Sense has called the project “a massive misuse of taxpayer money.” She added that waiving protections for the river sets a dangerous precedent.
Reps. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, Dan Boren, D-Okla., and Tom Cole, R-Okla., voted for the bill.