Senate vote to block HHS mandate on religious organizations tomorrow

Get your dialing fingers ready.  Roll Call reports that the Senate will hold a floor vote on an amendment by Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) to impose a religious-conscience exception to the HHS mandate announced by Barack Obama and Kathleen Sebelius last month.  The bill will come in the form of an amendment to the troubled transportation bill — which either complicates or simplifies the issue for the White House, depending on one’s perspective:

The Senate will vote Thursday on a conscience clause amendment to release religious organizations from government mandates in health care, Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) said today.

The amendment, proposed by Sen.Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) in response to an Obama administration policy that helps provide contraception coverage for women, is supported by a wide range of Republicans and has become a popular target for Democrats. It also has put more moderate New England Republicans facing re-election, such as Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine), in a tough spot.

Scott Brown himself disagrees with that assessment.  Brown wrote earlier this month that he supports an exemption in the law for religious organizations, just as Ted Kennedy insisted on providing in his own health-care proposals.  In fact, Brown feels so strongly about it that he’s now campaigning on the issue, running radio ads in Massachusetts.  The pressure in this case falls mainly on red-state Democrats in the Senate who have to stand for re-election in the fall in areas where religious liberty will be a big issue, including in Blunt’s own state of Missouri where Claire McCaskill will have to answer for her vote on the subject.

The vote sets up either a showdown or an opportunity for Obama, who miscalculated on how much resistance this mandate would generate.  If the amendment passes — and it’s going to be very difficult for McCaskill, Jon Tester, Bill Nelson, Joe Manchin, and even Mark Pryor to vote against it — it would force Obama to veto the entire transportation bill, a bill he has demanded for weeks.  That threatens to strengthen the hand of conservatives in the House and Senate who don’t like the bill as it is now, but who might be cajoled into coming along on it in order to pass Blunt’s bill.  Obama has issued only two vetos in his first term, and vetoing this bill over religious freedom would be a losing proposition, especially since having it pass the Democratic-controlled Senate would make Obama look extreme on the issue.

However, Obama may welcome the opportunity for Congress to roll back part of his mandate.  Its imposition will cost him votes, and its enforcement may well cost him tens of billions of dollars trying to fill gaps left by the departure of religious organizations in the health-care field.  It may even complicate his defense of ObamaCare in the Supreme Court this term, which is already likely to be overturned anyway.  But if Congress changes the mandate, it leaves Obama off the hook from having to retreat on the issue by adding a conscience exemption on his own.  It takes the issue off the table (at least mostly), but most importantly, it leaves the mandate in place for the rest of employers around the country.  Instead of a total win, it would give Obama a partial win and a chance to change the subject.

That’s probably why Reid allowed the Blunt amendment to get a floor vote in the first place.

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