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Merkley, Wyden back birth control access

Bill fails to reach debate; issue divides Democrat Merkley, GOP rival.


Oregon’s two Democratic senators voted Wednesday to advance legislation to ease the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court allowing some employers to thwart insurance coverage of birth control for their employees.

But the Senate fell short of the 60-vote majority required to move the legislation toward debate. The final vote was 56-43, largely along party lines; 42 of the 45 Republicans voted against the motion.

The controversy triggered by the court’s June 30 decision has spilled over into the U.S. Senate contest between Democratic incumbent Jeff Merkley and Republican Monica Wehby.

“I’m disappointed that so many of my Republican colleagues have joined the Supreme Court in giving bosses the right to interfere in their employees’ private health decisions,” Merkley said in a statement after today’s vote.

Half a century after contraceptives were introduced into general use, Merkley said during Senate debate, it was unsettling that “we are still debating the issue of birth control.”

By a 5-4 vote, the court ruled that under a 1993 law, some businesses can deny insurance coverage required by a federal regulation for contraceptives if the owners object on religious grounds.

Wehby has defended that decision.

Wehby, through a Twitter message from her campaign manager, said on June 30: “As long as every woman still has access to contraceptives through a third party, she doesn’t see a problem.”

Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon from Portland, is making her first bid for public office.

Even had the bill cleared the 60-vote threshold required to block a filibuster in the Senate and had passed, it faced trouble in the House, where Republican leaders are hostile to the national health-care overhaul that requires insurance plans to include such coverage.

The bill’s chief sponsors are Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Mark Udall of Colorado. Merkley and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden are cosponsors. It says that despite the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, employers cannot deny a health care item or service required by the 2010 national health-care overhaul.

The 2010 Affordable Care Act already provides an exemption for churches and religious nonprofit organizations. But the court decision extends a right to object to for-profit businesses that are closely held.

Because the court decision turned on an interpretation of a law as applied to a regulation, Congress has the option to write another law.

While Wehby argues that the court decision is narrow, Merkley says that reasoning could be used by employers to deny insurance coverage for such services as vaccinations, blood transfusions and treatment for AIDS.

“Women are counting on us to right this wrong from the U.S. Supreme Court,” Merkley said in his speech on the Senate floor. “The court got it wrong, and we are going to make it right.”

The vote did serve a political purpose of positioning Democrats on one side of the issue and most Republicans on the other.

Of those who voted to bring up the bill, 51 were Democrats, three Republicans and two independents. One Democrat was absent. On the other side, 42 were Republicans; also voting no was Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who did so as a parliamentary maneuver because it enables him to bring the bill up for another vote in the future.

A Merkley campaign spokeswoman, Lindsey O’Brien, said the candidates’ stances on the court’s Hobby Lobby decision, and Wehby’s support of some of the justices in the court’s majority “is a perfect example of the contrasts in this race.”

Wehby has in the past praised Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority decision, and Justice Antonin Scalia, also in the majority, who has said he would like to reverse the court’s 1973 decision legalizing abortion.

peterwong@PortlandTribune.com

(503) 385-4899

twitter.com/capitolwong