WASHINGTON -- In a rare floor speech Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) demanded that the Obama administration reverse its new rule requiring most employers' insurance plans to cover birth control with no co-pay for employees. Boehner pledged to take legislative action if the administration refuses to reverse.
Echoing the argument of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of the most powerful lobbying groups on the issue of birth control, Boehner called the coverage mandate "an unambiguous attack on religious freedom in our country" because it includes religiously affiliated organizations, such as schools and hospitals.
“In imposing this requirement, the federal government is violating a First Amendment right that has stood for more than two centuries. And it is doing so in a manner that affects millions of Americans and harms some of our nation's most vital institutions," Boehner said. "If the president does not reverse the [Health and Human Services] 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."
Boehner said the House Energy and Commerce Committee is taking the lead on the matter "through appropriate legislative channels."
The willingness of the House Republican leadership to jump into the contraception debate underscores how tempting a quick political victory can be, even in light of the leadership's pledge to remain focused on jobs.
As for the Senate Republican leadership, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said they are in talks about a legislative response to President Barack Obama's decision. He noted that a handful of GOP senators have already put forward bills that would override the rule.
"We're discussing the appropriate response," McConnell told reporters Wednesday. "The three senators you've heard from are involved in those discussions. We'll let you know when we decide what approach we're going to take."
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who introduced a bill last week that would allow religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and other organizations that morally oppose contraception to refuse to cover it for their employees, said no decision has been made on the timing of bringing legislation to the floor. Asked if he sees any middle ground with the White House, he proposed letting individual churches choose whether to pay for contraception for their employees.
Under the administration's rule, churches and houses of worship are already exempt from the general requirement to provide birth control coverage.
Rubio noted that he and some other Republicans met with a White House official last week and they told the official the contraception decision was "a mistake." The official, whom Rubio didn't identify, responded by justifying the administration's decision.
"I think their mind-set then was different than it is today," Rubio said. "I continue to say that the best outcome here would be for the White House to do this" -- that is, reverse the decision.
A group of 23 Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders countered Boehner's argument, saying in a joint statement Wednesday that they stand with President Obama and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in their decision to expand birth control coverage for women.
"We believe that women and men have the right to decide whether or not to apply the principles of their faith to family planning decisions, and to do so they must have access to services," the group said. "Hospitals and universities across the religious spectrum have an obligation to assure that individuals' conscience and decisions are respected and that their students and employees have access to this basic health care service. We invite other religious leaders to speak out with us for universal coverage of contraception."
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Wednesday that the administration hopes to "work with all these organizations to implement this policy in a way that is as sensitive to their concerns as possible," but added that the president is not backing down on this.
"Let's be clear," Carney said. "The president is committed to ensuring that women have access to contraception without paying any extra cost no matter where they work. Right now, we are focused on the implementation of this rule and doing what we said back on Jan. 20, when Secretary Sebelius announced it, which was work with those who have concerns to see if there is a way to implement this policy to ensure that woman everywhere have the same level of health care coverage and the same access to preventative services."
Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.
The article has been updated to include Wednesday remarks from Sens. Mitch McConnell and Marco Rubio and White House press secretary Jay Carney.