WASHINGTON -- An exasperated Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid urged Republicans to "calm down" Thursday after they tried to offer an amendment to a transportation bill aimed at countering birth control regulations under the health care law.
An Obama administration rule to require most employers -- including those affiliated with, but not directly promoting, religion -- to include contraception in their health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act has sparked heated responses from conservatives.
Senate Republicans on Thursday attempted to block the rule before it even took effect by amending the long-negotiated $109 billion transportation bill that the Senate had voted 85 to 11 to start debating.
Reid took umbrage.
"Here is a bipartisan bill to create and save jobs," the Democrat from Nevada said, noting it had required the input of four different committees. "Every state in the union is desperate for these dollars. But to show how the Republicans never lose an opportunity to mess up a good piece of legislation, listen to this: They're talking about First Amendment rights, the Constitution.
Reid fumed, "That is so senseless. This debate that's going on dealing with this issue dealing with contraception is a rule that hasn't been made final yet. There's no final rule."
"Until there's a final rule on this, let's deal with the issue before us. That's saving jobs for our country," he said. "I've never seen anything like this before. ... Why don't we just calm down and see what the final rule is."
Reid's outburst followed a pitch from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who took to the floor following an objection to the "Religious Freedom" amendment offered by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
"Our country is unique in the world because it was established on the basis of an idea: that we are all endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights -- in other words, rights that are conferred not by a king or a president or a Congress, but by the Creator himself. The state protects these rights, but it doesn't grant them," McConnell said.
"Our founders believed so strongly that the government should neither establish a religion nor prevent its free exercise that they listed it as the very first item in the Bill of Rights," he continued. "And Republicans are trying today to reaffirm that basic right. But Democrats won't allow it. They won't allow those of us who were sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution to even offer an amendment that says we believe in our First Amendment right to religious freedom. I never thought I'd see the day."
Blunt argued that his amendment should be acted on as soon as possible because he said the White House had signaled the rule would be promulgated.
"The administration said there would be a rule," Blunt said. "And to make it even more offensive, they said, by the way, here's what the rule is going to be, and we're going to give you a year to figure out how to adjust your views to accommodate the rule. I would have been less offended if they just said, here's the rule."
Republicans also did not think anyone on their side was being hysterical.
"Senator McConnell was very calm. So is the growing chorus of Democrats who would like to reverse the president's decision," said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart. He was referring to several Democrats who have expressed doubts about the contraception rule, including Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, who is backing Blunt's amendment.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.