Thursday, March 1, 2012 | 10:21 a.m.
Sen. Dean Heller voted today in support of a measure that would allow religious institutions to refuse health care coverage they find objectionable — a position consistent with his claim that "this vote is about religious freedom," but opens him to attacks by Democrats who think otherwise.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, Heller's rival in Nevada's Senate race, issued a statement within minutes of Heller casting his vote, charging that it wasn't so much about religious freedom as compromising women's health.
"By voting for the Blunt Amendment, Heller has put himself at odds with moderates in his own party and has left no doubt what his priorities are: a radical social agenda that takes aim not only at limiting birth control but undermining decades worth of fundamental medical progress," Berkley's campaign statement read.
Berkley, who has been calling Heller "anti-woman" for the last few weeks, did not have an opportunity to vote on a motion to table the amendment — Congress-speak for a procedural end-run around controversial legislation that avoids the need for a filibuster. Voting to table a measure puts it on ice permanently, and that's what the Senate did to the amendment offered by Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt Thursday, by a vote of 51 to 48.
The Senate was expected to kill Blunt's amendment. Holding the vote, however, dragged an issue that was to this point only dogging the president into U.S. Senate races across the country.
Blunt's amendment grew from a dispute between representatives of the Catholic church and Obama administration, which had rolled out new rules requiring religious institutions to cover contraception under the new health care law. President Barack Obama walked back the regulation slightly, saying that insurance companies serving religious institutions, not the institutions themselves, would have to foot the bill for contraceptive coverage -- an argument the Catholic Church hasn't bought, as the insurance company is bound to just shift the price of contraception coverage to some other cost.
As the controversy started brewing, Heller wrote a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in which he urged the secretary to dispense with the "overly narrow exception for faith-based organizations...that would be forced to provide coverage of contraceptive and abortifacient products despite strong objections to these drugs rooted in deeply-held religious beliefs.
"The federal government does not have the right to tell religious groups to provide a service that violates their faith," Heller wrote.
That last statement put Heller in line with the Blunt amendment.
Blunt's amendment went beyond Obama's dispute with the Catholic Church, referring to a "right of conscience" defined as ensuring "health care stakeholders retain the right to provide, purchase, or enroll in health coverage that is consistent with their religious beliefs and moral convictions." In other words, an employer could not be compelled to cover any health care product against which he or she had a religious, moral, or conscientious objection.
For Nevada, that is the crux issue: Religious institutions already have a blanket exemption from providing contraception coverage in the Silver State (not that all religious institutions exercise it) under a 1999 state law. But the Nevada law is only about contraception -- not about the host of potential other coverage areas that could be affected by Blunt's bill.
For most Democrats, it went too far.
"It will allow any employer or any insurer to deny coverage for virtually any treatment for virtually any reason," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said this morning, listing mammograms, prenatal screenings, flu shots, diabetes, and childhood vaccinations as health services that religiously or morally or conscientiously-motivated employers could also legitimately limit under the broad terms of the Blunt amendment. Reid voted to table the measure Thursday.
The Senate vote did not split neatly along party lines: Democratic Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska voted in favor of the Blunt amendment, while only one Republican -- Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, who announced earlier this week she was retiring because she was sick of partisan politics -- voted against it.
But the split allowed Democrats to start taking aim at their favorite targets, including Heller. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Commission Chairwoman Patty Murray went so far as to accuse Heller and Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown -- the Democrats' other prime target to flip a seat in November -- of fomenting a "culture war."
But it's clear the Republicans don't plan to respond on those grounds. In fact, even before Berkley's campaign blasted out their objection to Heller's vote, Heller's campaign had taken aim at Berkley for supporting the health care bill that created this business of mandated coverage in the first place.
“In my opinion, this violated the First Amendment right to freedom of religion,” Heller said, saying that the focus on contraception or other specific services are red herrings. "This is specifically about the Constitution, and whether or not Obamacare was constitutional.”
Heller said Thursday he never had a moment’s pause in deciding how to vote on the amendment.
“We spend billions of dollars providing contraception to women through health clinics, so access is not an issue...current law argues for access to contraception which I support,” Heller explained. “This amendment took us back to current law. the only thing that’s changing the law is Obamacare. What I’m arguing for is current law.”
The Nevada Democrats seem equally primed, however, to make this argument over the Blunt amendment about past votes.
"The Blunt Amendment is equally as damaging to Dean Heller as his votes for the Ryan budget, giving employers the power to take away coverage for preventive care that women already have - for any reason the employer wants," said spokesman Zac Petkanas. "When Nevadans are expecting their leaders to talk about jobs, Dean Heller is instead doubling down on his war on women."