Senate candidates use flap over contraceptives to raise money and support

Washington — Congress can’t seem to stop its debate on birth control — and one reason is that it’s bringing in lots of votes and money.

The debate that began earlier this month over a birth control mandate has spread beyond Congress to the GOP presidential campaign, and to Connecticut’s Senate race where Democratic candidates hope it helps and Republican candidates are likely wishing the issue goes away.

It might, but not quite yet. The Senate voted 51 to 48 Thursday to reject an amendment sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that would have allowed employers to refuse to cover any kind of health care service for religious or moral reasons.

It aimed to override President Obama’s requirement under the health care bill that employers cover contraception in their employees’ insurance plans. Obama tried to quell criticism of his plan with a compromise that exempted religiously affiliated institutions from the birth control mandate.

But the compromise did nothing to appease the GOP or the Catholic Church, which bans most forms of birth control.

It is unlikely the failure of the Blunt amendment will end the debate.

“It’s part of a continued assault on women’s health care,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

He and the state’s senior senator, Joseph I. Lieberman, voted no.

“I believe the Administration’s proposal is inadequate, but I will not support the Blunt Amendment because I believe it is too broad,” Lieberman said before the vote.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., allowed Blunt to hold up a transportation bill with his amendment because he thinks the longer Republicans talk about birth control, the more Democrats can raise money and shore up support among women.

Republicans are also using the issue to raise money among conservatives and broaden GOP support among Catholics, who are strongly opposed to Obama’s contraceptive mandate.

But, in general, the flap over birth control is helping Democrats solidify their base and gives them an opening to appeal to independent women, said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. “So far, Democrats have done a much better job on this issue than Republicans.”

In Massachusetts, Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren is pummeling her Republican rival, Sen. Scott Brown, because he’s a co-sponsor of the Blunt amendment.

In Connecticut’s race for retiring Sen. Lieberman’s seat, the issue is playing out a little differently.

Linda McMahon, a Republican Senate candidate, is doing better with the issue than many other GOP candidates, Duffy said.

That’s because McMahon has limited her criticisms of the birth control policy to saying it violates the religious freedoms of Catholics and others. McMahon has also declined to endorse the Blunt amendment.

“I don’t think it’s a complete loser for (McMahon) as long as she defends contraception,” Duffy said.

Another Republican in Connecticut’s Senate race, former Rep. Chris Shays, has rejected the Blunt amendment.

“The solution to the problem is not the president’s so-called compromise,” said Shays. “The solution isn’t the Blunt amendment. The solution is to reverse the directive … which only exists because of the president’s health care plan, which also needs to be repealed.”

Like McMahon, Shays has been careful to avoid making the issue a battle over a woman’s right to contraceptives.

While Republicans in states with more conservatives voters are raising campaign funds on the issue, the Connecticut Republican Party has largely ignored it.

“That issue was not foremost among the messaging we have done so far in our outreach to Connecticut Republicans,” said Bryan Cafferelli, executive director of the Connecticut Republican Party.

Connecticut Democrats, however, are using the contraceptive issue to raise money and support.

After House Republicans held a hearing earlier this month that featured a panel of men who opposed Obama’s plan, Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, a candidate trying to succeed the retiring Lieberman, sent out a mass mailing urging people to sign an online protest petition. The petition linked to a contribution page.

“This CANNOT stand. This is the latest — and most outrageous — in a string of insults to women’s health from Republicans,” Murphy’s mailing said.

Former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, a Democrat also running for the Senate, has sent out several fundraising letters attacking Republicans on the subject of  reproductive rights.

“This issue is something people have responded to,” said Jonathan Ducote, Bysiewicz’s campaign manager.

Using the birth control controversy to appeal for political donations also carries risk to both Democrats and Republicans. Raising a hot-button social issue could turn off moderates, independents and other voters who are more concerned about unemployment, rising gas prices and the economy.