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House Republicans Increasingly Cautious About Vote on 'Rights of Conscience' Bill

House Republicans Increasingly Cautious About Vote on 'Rights of Conscience' Bill

March 7, 2012 — Top House Republicans are delaying plans to vote on legislation aimed at undermining the new federal contraceptive coverage rules, according to sources close to the House leadership, Politico reports. A source close to House Republican leaders said they have determined they need to first "win the debate and then win the policy." However, the House is expected to continue to hold hearings on the issue.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry's (R-Neb.) "Respect for Rights of Conscience Act" (HR 1179) has been pending in the House for months and likely would pass if it were brought to the floor, as 219 House members have signed on as co-sponsors. However, the Senate's defeat of companion legislation by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has some Republicans questioning the need for an essentially symbolic vote heading into the November election.

"I think the Senate already took action and we've got a lot else on our plate," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is running for a Senate seat.

According to Politico, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) -- who last month called for Congress to act on the issue -- has since toned down his remarks, saying last week that the House will "decide on how we will proceed." Boehner spokesperson Michael Steel suggested on Tuesday that it was up to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (R-Mich.) to determine whether the bill would move forward.

Upton, who is a co-sponsor of the bill, has not scheduled a committee markup. Energy and Commerce Committee spokesperson Debbee Keller said House members are "continuing to work" on how to proceed.

Tom McClusky, senior vice president of the Family Research Council Action, said his group is pushing lawmakers to schedule a vote. He added, "In our opinion, the sooner the better. There's got to be a vote before ... November" (Feder/Nocera, Politico, 3/7).

Obama Comments on Fluke, Limbaugh

President Obama on Tuesday said one reason he recently phoned Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke was to set an example for his daughters, the New York Times reports (Calmes, New York Times, 3/6). Obama called Fluke on Friday to express his support after conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called her a "slut" and a "prostitute," among other lewd comments, for speaking out in favor of the contraceptive coverage rules (Women's Health Policy Report, 3/5).

During a White House press conference, Obama said, "The reason I called Ms. Fluke is because I thought about [my daughters] Malia and Sasha and one of the things that I want them to do as they get older is to engage in issues they care about, even ones that I may not agree with [them] on" (Tau/Lee, Politico, 3/6). He added, "I don't want them attacked and called horrible names because they are being good citizens" (Cook, Christian Science Monitor, 3/6).

Limbaugh has since apologized for targeting Fluke for her testimony in support of contraceptive coverage (Quinton, National Journal, 3/6). Obama declined comment on Limbaugh's apology, saying that he does not know "what's in Rush Limbaugh's heart," but he added that Limbaugh's remarks "don't have any place" in public discourse (AP/U-T San Diego, 3/6).

According to Politico, some conservatives believe the Limbaugh controversy might make Republicans more wary of embracing him. Although many conservative voters are fans of Limbaugh, "[t]his incident drives home that there are many more voters out there who regard an association with Limbaugh as a negative, not a positive," conservative pundit David Frum said (Hagey, Politico, 3/7).

Insurance Commissioners Reject Resolution Against Contraceptive Coverage Rules

In related news, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners on Tuesday chose not to vote on a resolution denouncing the federal contraceptive coverage rules, CQ HealthBeat reports. Although the resolution did not specifically mention the rules or the exemption for religiously affiliated employers, it stated that "NAIC cannot support any legislative action that would deny citizens constitutionally protected religious rights" and urged all NAIC state commissioners to "protect religious liberties in health care."

At the group's spring conference, Oklahoma Commissioner John Doak tried to force a vote on the resolution, but no one seconded his motion (Adams, CQ HealthBeat, 3/6).