Scott Brown and the 99 percent
US Sen. Scott Brown has jumped feet first into a controversy that complicates his Senate campaign.
Last week, the Obama administration back-peddled on a mandate to require institutions and universities with religious affiliations to provide birth control coverage. President Obama pretty much solved his political problems by allowing those organizations to avoid the mandate as long as the insurers provide contraceptive coverage. A New York Times/CBS News poll shows that 61 percent of Americans support a mandate that would require religious employers to provide contraception coverage.
Brown, by contrast, ventured into more dangerous territory. “One of our most cherished liberties is freedom of religion,” he said in a recent statement. “Like Ted Kennedy before me, I support a conscience exemption for religious organizations in health care.”
Brown could have left it there. Instead, he signed on to a proposal sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, that would allow businesses and health insurers to opt out of providing contraception or any other care or services that conflicts with their religious or moral beliefs. Brown and other 35 Republican senators support the measure. Only one Democrat backs it.
The plan is cloaked in appeals to religious liberty. But the vast majority of women won’t see it that way: access to birth control is a settled issue. Nationally, 99 percent of American women use birth control; 98 percent of Catholic women do.
Until now, Brown managed to avoid being linked to the most conservative of the national Republican big ticket items, but getting out in front of of a debate over birth control is highly unlikely to be a winning strategy in Massachusetts. Democratic front-runner Elizabeth Warren blasted Brown’s position and claimed that the plan would pave the way for other exclusions. She told The Washington Post, “It opens the door to outright discrimination. It would let insurance companies and corporations cut off pregnant women, overweight guys, older Americans, or anyone — because some executive claims it’s part of his moral code. Maybe that wouldn’t happen, but I don’t want to take the chance.”
Harvard School of Public Health’s John McDonough, the former director of Health Care for All who played a key role in designing the state’s landmark heath care law, also criticized the plan and breaks down what it would mean for Massachusetts residents here.
Why would Brown bring this culture war skirmish to Massachusetts, especially with polls showing that the race is already very close? The controversy has only prompted his critics to take a closer look at his State House voting record. In 2002, he voted to mandate that insurers provide contraceptive coverage for women, but also supported a failed amendment that would have excluded church-affiliated organizations.
As usual, money changes everything. Brown has nearly double the cash in his war chest that Warren has, according to a Boston Globe analysis. But Warren is drawing more support from beyond the Bay State than Brown has to date. What better way for Brown to gin up out-of-state dollars, particularly from potential donors who are already skeptical about his conservative bona fides on issues like Planned Parenthood funding, than to take up the religious liberty standard?
Brown has gotten as far as he has by charting a careful course through the minefield that is national Republican party politics. But this move would appear to be a major blunder. Unless the junior senator plans to abandon Mitt Romney and start auditioning for a spot in a Rick Santorum cabinet, it’s unclear how using contraception to stake out a position on religious liberty helps his chances in November.
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