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Contraceptive Coverage, Abortion Bills Shape Midterm Strategy for Both Parties

Contraceptive Coverage, Abortion Bills Shape Midterm Strategy for Both Parties

July 16, 2014 — As both parties angle for an edge with voters this fall, Senate Democrats and Republicans are pushing competing legislation that responds to the Supreme Court's contraceptive coverage ruling, while Democrats are also backing a measure to nullify medically unnecessary state restrictions on abortion, Politico Pro reports.

According to Politico Pro, none of the measures are likely to become law. However, lawmakers are using the proposals to frame their campaigns for the midterm election, with Democrats focusing on the Supreme Court ruling to reinforce their "war on women" messaging and the GOP hoping to broaden its appeal among the female electorate.

Senate Vote on Democrats' Contraceptive Coverage Bill

Senate Democrats on Tuesday touted their legislation that aims to reverse the Supreme Court's ruling in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell allowing companies to refuse contraceptive coverage in their employer-sponsored health plans based on the business owners' religious beliefs, Politico Pro reports.

The Senate is scheduled to hold a procedural vote on Wednesday on whether to move forward with the bill, but it is unlikely to garner the 60 votes necessary to clear that hurdle (Winfield Cunningham, Politico Pro, 7/15).

The legislation would prohibit employers from discriminating against female employees by denying "coverage of a specific health care item or service" that is guaranteed under federal law. It also would prevent employers from using the Hobby Lobby ruling to deny employees coverage for any other preventive services, such as vaccinations, among other provisions (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/10).

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the bill's primary sponsor, said that access to contraception "shouldn't be a controversial issue." She added, "The only controversy about birth control is the fact that it is 2014 and women across America are still fighting for this basic health care" (Politico Pro, 7/15).

Republicans Unveil Bill Validating Hobby Lobby Ruling

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans said they are proposing competing legislation that would affirm that employers cannot bar employees from purchasing contraceptives (Cox, "Floor Action," The Hill, 7/15). The bill also would require FDA to study whether allowing over-the-counter access to contraception is safe and expand how health savings accounts could be used to purchase contraception.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) -- who sponsored the bill alongside Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) -- said that the bill makes clear that the Hobby Lobby ruling will not prevent women from buying contraception.

"There is nothing in the Hobby Lobby ruling that allows a company to stop a woman from getting or filling a prescription for contraception," Ayotte said (Politico Pro, 7/15).

Lawmakers Debate Women's Health Protection Act

In related news, Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee sparred at a hearing on Tuesday over legislation (S 1696) that aims to nullify medically unnecessary state restrictions on abortion, CQ Roll Call reports (Margetta, CQ Roll Call, 7/15).

The bill, called the Women's Health Protection Act, would prevent states from imposing restrictions on abortion providers "that are more burdensome than those restrictions imposed on medically comparable procedures." It also would prohibit states from banning abortion prior to viability or when a doctor believes that continuing the pregnancy would harm a woman's health, among other provisions (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/15).

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Cali.) has introduced a companion measure (HR 3471) in the House, with 124 Democratic co-sponsors (CQ Roll Call, 7/15).

According to the Los Angeles Times' "Nation Now," the bill could appeal to female voters, particularly unmarried women, who often have low turnout in midterm elections. Democrats are hoping to court that voter bloc to help maintain control of the Senate, "Nation Now" reports (Levine, "Nation Now," Los Angeles Times, 7/15).

During the hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the bill's primary sponsor, said the measure comes in response to a "cascading avalanche of restrictions on reproductive health" and takes aim at "regulations that do nothing to help a woman's health or safety and in fact are more likely to harm it" (CQ Roll Call, 7/15).

Meanwhile, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) called the bill a "weak political ploy" that Senate Democrats are using to "appear compassionate and concerned about women's rights when, in reality, the bill disregards popular and common sense laws enacted by various states aimed at protecting women and children across the country" ("Nation Now," Los Angeles Times, 7/15).

L.A. Times Column: Women's Health Protection Act 'Overdue'

Los Angeles Times columnist Robin Abcarian writes, "In the last few years, state legislators around the country have been busy with an onslaught of antiabortion legislation aimed at making it impossible for women to exercise what is still (despite the opposition's best efforts) a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution." She notes that "four times as many bills aimed at limiting abortion access (93) were passed between 2011 and 2013 than had been passed in the previous decade (22)."

Abcarian discusses testimony presented at the Women's Health Protection Act hearing. She writes that even if the bill does not pass, efforts to bring attention to state abortion restrictions are a "[w]elcome, if overdue," step (Abcarian, Los Angeles Times, 7/15).