Senate Blocks Republican Contraception Measure, but the Debate Can’t Be Voted Away

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In a 51-48 vote on Thursday, the Senate rejected a Republican amendment that would have allowed any employer to deny medical coverage for services it objected to on religious grounds. Drawn up in the wake of the Obama Administration’s decision to mandate contraception coverage at Catholic universities and hospitals, the amendment, championed by Roy Blunt of Missouri, never had much of a chance of getting through a Democratic Senate or Obama White House. But the issue of religious freedom, as most Republicans tell it, and women’s health coverage, according to most Democrats, cannot be easily tabled by a procedural vote. It has already hijacked some of the most high-profile political contests of the cycle. And there’s no reason to think it won’t continue to do so.

Of the three Democrats who voted in favor of the Blunt Amendment, two face tough re-election contests in socially conservative states this year. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey joined retiring Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson in support of the measure, lending themselves the appearance of independence from President Obama that’s fodder for campaign advertising as Election Day draws near.

(MORE: Conflict Over Obama’s Contraception Rule Intensifies)

The only Republican to break from her party was Maine’s Olympia Snowe, newly freed from partisan restraints by her retirement announcement. But other GOPers who voted for it won’t soon move on — at least voluntarily. Massachusetts’ Scott Brown is already embroiled in a fight with his likely Democratic opponent Elizabeth Warren on the issue. They traded radio ads last week and both claim their respective positions as a political winner.

Brown is wielding the Blunt amendment in an appeal to Catholic voters, even invoking the name of Massachusetts’ most famous Catholic politician. “I’m concerned about a new federal mandate forcing religious organizations to offer insurance coverage for practices that go against the teachings of their church. Such a requirement flies in the face of our basic American values of religious tolerance,” Brown said in the ad. “Like Ted Kennedy before me, I support a conscience exemption in health care for Catholics and other people of faith.” Warren has cast Blunt as an attempt to interject employers between women and their health care providers. “This new law threatens women’s access to contraception, mammograms, even maternity care. It’s just plain wrong,” she said. (Clearly, it’s not actually a law.)

(MORERick Santorum Wants to Fight ‘The Dangers Of Contraception’)

But the fight is much bigger than the Senate. Mitt Romney got sucked into the maelstrom on Wednesday when he answered a poorly worded question about the amendment, with which he seemed unfamiliar. “I’m not for the bill, but look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a women, husband and wife, I’m not going there,” he said. He was going there though, and clarified his remarks shortly thereafter, expressing his support for the Blunt amendment. Undeterred, Rick Santorum is still hammering Romney for his momentary waffle–“I tell you, if I was asked a question like that, my gut reaction would be always…you stand for the first amendment,” he said Thursday–and Obama will likely attack whomever wins the nomination from the other side of the issue.

In the savage endurance contest that is this year’s election–a topic David Von Drehle explores in the new issue of TIME–nothing is quickly or painlessly put aside, Senate vote or not.