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Blunt amendment brings culture wars to Congress

The Blunt amendment would attach a provision to a key highway bill that would let employers opt out of a new federal health-care mandate for their employees if they have religious objections.

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Sen. Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri talks to reporters following a Republican strategy session at the Capitol in Washington.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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The controversy over access to contraception first sparked by President Obama’s health-care law is now moving to Congress.

Republicans are trying to add an amendment to a highway bill currently in the Senate that would allow employers to opt out of a new federal health-care mandate for their employees if they have religious objections. The Senate is expected to vote Thursday morning. 

A recently announced rule in the health care law would have forced businesses including those affiliated to the Catholic Church to provide health-care options that included access to contraception – something the Catholic Church opposes. Mr. Obama has offered a compromise on the rule, but conservatives say it doesn't go far enough.

Senate Republicans – with exceptions – are framing the amendment by Sen. Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri as a defense of a fundamental constitutional right.

Senate Democrats – also with exceptions – see the issue as a war on women and a deliberate bid to obstruct passage of a long-delayed bill that would fund major construction and repair projects, affecting millions of jobs.

The issue goes to the heart of the culture wars, also roiling the GOP presidential primary. 

“This issue gets right at the heart of who we are as a people,” said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, in an opening floor speech on Thursday.  “It is not in the power of the federal government to tell anybody what to believe or to punish them for practicing those beliefs,” he added.

But Democrats say the highway bill shouldn’t become a venue for the contraception issue.

“This legislation is too important to be bogged down by political amendments,” said Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada in a floor speech on Thursday.

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