Leading Democrats on Monday vehemently disagreed with the Supreme Court’s decision to limit the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, but some also saw in the ruling a political opportunity to galvanize female voters, whom they view as crucial to keeping the Senate majority in November.
Senate Democrats immediately pounced on the high court’s 5-4 decision, vowing a legislative fix to undo the damage to the administration’s efforts to provide preventive health care services to more women. The decision, they said, only highlighted the importance of preserving the Senate’s Democratic majority as a check on the Republican House and the increasingly powerful conservative voices on the Supreme Court appointed by Republican presidents.
“If the Supreme Court will not protect women’s access to health care, then Democrats will,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement. “We will continue to fight to preserve women’s access to contraceptive coverage and keep bosses out of the examination room.”
During the 2012 presidential and congressional elections, women’s health issues surged to the forefront of the political conversation and were rapidly adopted by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, then led by Patty Murray of Washington, as a way to win over independent women and protect the Senate majority many had expected the party would lose.
The Republican candidate for Senate in Missouri, then-Rep. Todd Akin, created a national political firestorm by claiming that women’s bodies had ways to “shut down” pregnancy in the event of “legitimate rape.” Between that controversy and related ones over the contraception mandate in Obamacare and a proposed law that would force women to submit to transvaginal ultrasounds in Virginia prior to getting an abortion, GOP candidates across the country found themselves forced to answer difficult questions about women’s access to constitutionally protected but highly controversial women’s health care services.
Though the Supreme Court’s decision might not seem as potent a political spark as the video of Akin making his remarks, it presents the Democrats with a fresh way to again make their battle-tested argument that the Republican Party is waging a war on women and disproportionately seeking to restrict their rights and access to health care.
Senate Democratic aides on Capitol Hill said lawmakers are exploring multiple options to counter the court’s decision. They are examining whether they can approve legislation to restrict the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act — which was at the center of the majority’s Hobby Lobby ruling — from applying to corporations. Another potential option would be to encourage the Obama administration to broaden the scope of a fix it previously implemented when churches and church-affiliated universities and hospitals protested the contraception mandate. In those cases, church or hospital employees deal directly with insurance companies to select their coverage, meaning that the churches are not involved in the decision but women can still elect to receive preventive care.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in his briefing later on Monday that the administration viewed the policy burden as falling on Congress. “Congress needs to take action to solve this problem that's been created, and the administration stands ready to work with them do so.”
Murray is expected to be one of the key leaders in organizing the Senate Democratic response to Monday’s decision. The Washington Democrat has repeatedly led the charge against Republicans on women’s issues, and successfully maintained funding for Planned Parenthood during a potential government shutdown fight in 2011, when the GOP was looking to strip aid to the group in exchange for funding the government.
Republicans still control the House, however, making it unlikely anything the Senate works to pass would get through the House and become law. In practice, this means that even if Senate Democrats use their remaining legislative work days (of which there might be two dozen) to talk about the GOP’s efforts to restrict contraceptive coverage for women, the chance of their changing the reality for women at “closely held” corporations covered by the court ruling is low.
Knowing that legislation is unlikely to pass, but pursuing it anyway, doesn’t just reflect the reality of this Congress, it also gives Democrats a chance to build a larger narrative for the looming midterm election.
“Today’s Supreme Court decision is a stark reminder of how important it is for Democrats to keep hold of the Senate,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, a pro-women’s issues group. “When the future of our judiciary branch and women’s access to healthcare is at stake we need every woman to get out and vote in November.”
Many incumbent Democrats who are in tough re-election battles released statements in the minutes and hours after Monday’s decision.
“Today’s Supreme Court decision unfortunately jeopardizes basic health care coverage and access to contraception for a countless number of women and I’m very disappointed by the ruling,” said Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, who is running against former Sen. Scott Brown in New Hampshire. “Blocking access to contraception will have economic and public health consequences that our country cannot afford.”
The campaign of Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, who is being challenged in Colorado by conservative Rep. Cory Gardner, took a more pointed approach, saying in an email that the Supreme Court was going in Gardner’s direction.
“Today the Supreme Court followed Congressman Cory Gardner’s lead in putting a woman’s boss in charge of her family planning decisions,” said Women for Udall director Kim Howard, in the e-mailed statement. “Mark Udall respects Colorado women and trusts them to make their own choices. Mark believes that personal decisions should be made by a woman and her doctor — not her boss, her congressman, or a judge.”