Top White House officials held a private call with lawmakers of the Pro Choice Caucus on Friday for advice on how to deal with the religious exemption to universal birth control coverage. The move comes amid heavy pressure from the Catholic bishop lobby, and lawmakers have expressed frustration that Obama has granted more face time to the bishops on the issue than to them so far.
The Department of Health and Human Services is currently considering a rule that would require all private health insurance plans to cover contraception at no cost for women. Churches, HHS initially proposed, would be exempt from having to cover birth control for their employees if it conflicts with their teachings and beliefs.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and other religious groups have been aggressively lobbying HHS, Congress and the White House since September to expand the religious exemption to include hospitals, schools, non-profits and any other religious-affiliated organization that would pay for their employees' contraception. Women's health advocates argue that expanding the religious exemption would unfairly block access to contraception coverage for the millions of women who work for those employers.
The lingering question is whether Obama, who supports reproductive rights and has a strong record of protecting women's health, will cave to the opposition lobby on the birth control issue.
"Politically, it would be disastrous for the President and the White House to back off on this issue and take away this very popular benefit that improves women's health," Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), a member of the Pro Choice Caucus, told HuffPost Friday. "It's going to be tough to ask for women's votes in 2012 if their last impression of him is his willingness to trade their health coverage options for politics."
Obama met privately with Archbishop Timothy Dolan recently to discuss the exemption.
"I found the president of the United States to be very open to the sensitivities of the Catholic community," Dolan said in a news conference Monday. "I left there feeling a bit more at peace about this issue than when I entered."
White House legislative affairs director Rob Nabors told lawmakers in the conference call on Friday that President Obama has not even been briefed on the issue yet, as HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is still sifting through all the public comments. But Nabors promised lawmakers that the President would meet with members of the Pro Choice Caucus before he makes his final decision, a Democratic aide on the call told HuffPost later Friday.
Friday's conference call was the first opportunity the lawmakers have had to talk to the White House about their concerns, said the staffer, who did not want to be named for professional reasons. The aide said Pro Choice members are frustrated that the White House has repeatedly refused to grant them an in-person meeting, despite having granted one to Nolan.
"Members are so nervous that the White House is going to expand the religious exemption that they demanded to have a conference call, but even getting that was a very heavy lift," the staffer told HuffPost. "It's never been more clear to me than today that the primary element of pressure on the White House is being orchestrated by the bishops. I don't know if they're meeting with the White House, I don't know what kind of access they have, but I do find it troubling that the Pro Choice Caucus hasn't been able to meet with the White House yet."
Lowey said that the fact that Obama would have any trouble deciding on a rule that affects millions of women's birth control coverage speaks to the power of the opposition lobby.
"Let me say this: I don't have first hand information that the lobby is stronger on the other side," she said, "but the fact that the White House is asking for opinions and advice makes it clear to me they've been very powerful."
HHS held an open comment period in September during which various advocacy groups could express their opinions on the interim guidelines before the final version is released, but the bishops went further. The day the comment period ended, the USCCB established a major new political arm -- the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty -- to convince the Obama administration either to entirely remove the coverage of birth control from the guidelines, or to give all religious-related organizations a free pass.
The bishops have also worked with House Republicans to draft and push a bill that would preempt the Obama administration's decision by imposing a giant religious exemption onto the new HHS recommendation through legislative means.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said if the Obama administration chooses not to expand the religious exemption, he will be trampling on the First Amendment rights of the Catholic Church.
"A Catholic organization cannot be forced to pay for services that go against its teaching," she said. "It's just untenable. We're hoping for a decision which respects religious freedom."
Senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett predicted on Friday that Obama will announce a final decision on the rule in late December or early January.