WASHINGTON • Sen. Roy Blunt, who for weeks has been at the center of a national debate on contraceptives and religious freedom, said he intends to leave the issue to others after the Senate defeated his measure to let employers deny services out of moral conviction.
"My view is that we've probably done about as much as can be done in the Senate," he said after the vote Thursday. "Now it's up to the House, the administration and maybe, eventually, the courts to see who takes the next move."
Blunt's proposal was set aside on a "motion to table," 51-48, after senators presented sharply contrasting views about potential threats to birth control and rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
While he lost by three votes on Thursday, Blunt's proposal ultimately would take 60 votes for passage, Democrats have said, meaning that it probably can't succeed unless Republicans regain control of the Senate in November.
In the largely party-line vote, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Dick Durbin of Illinois were among Democrats voting to table his amendment. Just three Democrats — Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — voted with Blunt and Republicans. Only one Republican, Olympia Snowe of Maine, voted with Democrats.
The controversial amendment, which raised Blunt's profile nationally, sought to give employers the right to deny health services in company-provided insurance coverage if they considered them a violation of religion or moral conviction.
Blunt introduced his Respect for Rights of Conscience Act last year as a means to challenge the health insurance overhaul enacted in 2010. He began pushing it earnestly after President Barack Obama's administration issued a mandate in late January requiring coverage of contraception services for employees of religious-affiliated institutions.
The White House revised the rule last month, shifting the cost to insurance companies. But the change did nothing to quell outrage from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Kirkwood-based Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and many other churches and organizations affiliated with religion.
On the eve of the vote, the Catholic bishops' office issued a memorandum branding as "preposterous" Democrats' claims that millions of women could lose health care services.
Blunt and his allies appeared to struggle in recent days to portray the debate as one over religious liberty and nothing more.
"I believe what this does is protect First Amendment rights. The first freedom in the founding documents is freedom of religion," Blunt said on the Senate floor.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said, "Obamacare is what brought us here today ... Our Bill of Rights has been subordinated to the president's desire to micromanage the nation's health care system."
Hatch added: "Those of you who vote against this amendment are playing with fire."
Democrats appeared to relish an opportunity to frame the amendment as an attack on women's health care. They argued that it would enable employers to deny coverage for a host of preventive care services, such as mental health therapy, childhood immunizations and HIV screening.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., reported Thursday that a fundraising appeal this week focusing on the threats to women earlier had raised $1.1 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Pelosi sent out yet another fund request after the vote that asserted: "The very day we kick off Women's History Month, Republicans held a vote on giving corporations the power to deny women access to basic health care."
In Senate debate, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., argued that Blunt's amendment "allows any insurance company that doesn't want to provide a service, maybe an expensive service, to say 'Oh, I meant to tell you, I have a moral objection to this.'"
Speaking with reporters later, Blunt referred to "crazy things" being said about his proposal. He noted that his amendment would enable the government to require coverage of other health care services of equivalent cost if employers successfully challenged on religious grounds.
"There's no financial reason not to provide a benefit. The only reason left is a true religious belief or a moral equivalent," he said.
The amendment prompted confusion over a reporter's question to GOP hopeful Mitt Romney, who first told an interviewer in Ohio on Wednesday that he opposed Blunt's proposal. Romney added: "The idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, husband and wife, I'm not going there."
His campaign issued a release later saying that Romney had misunderstood the question and that he supported the amendment. Blunt serves as Romney's liaison with Congress.