by letting any business or insurer refuse to provide any medical service.
The vote reflected sharp partisan divisions, with every Republican but one voting in favor of the amendment and all but three Democrats opposed.
“The closeness of this vote shows how high the stakes are for women this year,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “A Republicanled Senate might pass this bill, a Republican president like Mitt Romney would definitely sign it. If Republicans keep this up, they’re going to drive away independent voters.”
But Republicans in Congress and the presidential field argue that the issue is religious freedom and noted that the amendment does nothing more than restore the status quo, circa 2009.
“Religious institutions and persons will now be compelled by the state to violate their conscience,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican. “Prior to 2010 and the passage of Obamacare, the First Amendment was intact. Today, it is in tatters.”
The fight began in January after the Obama administration added all contraceptives approved by the Food and Drug Administration to the list of mandatory preventive services that insurance plans must cover without charging co-payments or deductibles.
The administration offered churches an exemption to directly paying for contraception coverage and later expanded it to religious schools, hospitals and charities. Many religious leaders called the offers a bookkeeping gimmick. They pointed out that insurance companies will simply pass contraception costs on to them and that many large religious institutions self-insure, thus would be forced to pay anyway.
While the legislation would have allowed employers to opt out, it still would have required their insurance carriers with no objections to cover contraceptives at no cost. It also wouldn’t have struck down dozens of state laws that require insurers to cover contraception.
“Unfortunately, this is only a glimpse of what Americans can expect as a result of President Obama’s government health care takeover — which is why we need to repeal and replace this bill with common-sense bipartisan solutions,” Mr. Blunt said. “This fight is not over.”
Democrats launched an all-out attack on the amendment this week, spending hours blasting it from the Senate floor, warning of refusals to cover blood transfusions or childhood immunizations and saying that insurers could require people to engage in faith healing.
The Obama administration called the amendment too broad, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called it “dangerous and wrong.”
“This proposal isn’t limited to contraception nor is it limited to any preventative service,” Mrs. Sebelius said. “Any employer could restrict access to any service they say they object to. This is dangerous and wrong.”
That criticism was repeated by outside groups. Dr. Robert W. Block, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the Blunt amendment “would have allowed employers to deny their employees services such as vaccinations or blood transfusions, based solely on religious or moral beliefs.”
Pro-life Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Robert P. Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia voted for the amendment, but some moderate Republicans expressed concern over the legislation’s sweeping language. Retiring Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine voted against it, while her colleague Susan M. Collins supported it despite strong reservations.
Ms. Collins said she wrote a letter to the administration asking for clarification on whether religious employers who self-insure also would be exempt from the mandate — but the administration was vague in its response. The administration also has formally written the initial regulation into law but has not done the same for its proposed fixes.
“I do this with a lot of conflict, because I think the amendment does have its flaws,” she said. “But when the administration cannot even assure me that self-insured organizations’ religious freedoms are protected, I feel I have no choice.”
As the most vocal opponent against the contraception mandate, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops vowed to continue opposing the rule and said it is looking to similar legislation that House Republicans have indicated they will advance.
“We will continue our strong defense of conscience rights through all available legal means,” said Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn. “Religious freedom is at the heart of democracy and rooted in the dignity of every human person. We will not rest until the protection of conscience rights is restored and the First Amendment is returned to its place of respect in the Bill of Rights.”
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, promised eventual action on similar legislation, but didn’t set a timetable Thursday.
That left the issue to roil the political field, with parties and pressure groups on both sides of the aisle vowing to keep the issue at the forefront of public discussion until November.
“We know this is just an attempt in a series of attempts,” said Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat. “We heard from Sen. Blunt today that they’re going to continue to move forward, to go after taking away the ability of women to make their own health care choices, particularly when it comes to contraceptives. We’re going to stand up, we’re going to fight back.”
Terry O’neill, president of the National Organization for Women, vowed that “without question, the politicians who voted in favor of Blunt’s amendment — whether female or male, Republican or Democrat — will pay a price in the voting booth.”
The Republican presidential candidates have seized on the issue to cast doubt on Mr. Obama’s commitment to religious liberty. In a CNN presidential debate last month, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said the mandate was a continuation of the president’s attack on religion.
“I don’t think we’ve seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we’ve seen under Barack Obama,” Mr. Romney said.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports pro-life candidates, said, “There will be consequences in November for senators in tight races who voted to kill this amendment with the absurd reasoning that they are acting in the best interests of women. Undermining the religious liberty and conscience rights of women can never serve them.” home-schoolers in future years.
“It’s the camel’s nose under the tent,” he said.
The bill, sponsored by Delegate Robert B. Bell, Albemarle Republican, garnered significant attention for its nickname — after Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who was home-schooled in Florida and played football on a local high school team.
Mr. Bell said a parade of home-schooled children speaking before the Senate Education and Health Committee who played tennis, basketball and baseball were not asking for a spot on teams — just an opportunity.
“Home schooling has become more an everyday, mainstream choice,” Mr. Bell said after the vote. “They get tested every year by the state and have to score at certain levels . . . but one they can’t do is have big-team athletics. And so we’re trying to find a way for these students, who are doing everything the state tells them to do, who are in good academic standing, can have a way to play sports.”
The 8-7 committee vote was largely along party lines, with Sen. Harry B. Blevins, Virginia Beach Republican and a former teacher, voting with seven Democrats against the legislation. The Republicancontrolled House approved the measure last month on a 59-39 vote.
About 32,000 students are homeschooled in Virginia. Twenty-five states either allow home-schoolers to play sports at public schools, do not prohibit it, or leave the discretion to localities, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association.
“I would like to see a Tim Tebow for the state of Virginia,” said Sen. Richard H. Black, Loudoun Republican.
The bill was opposed by the Virginia High School League, which coordinates public school sports throughout the state, as well as the Virginia Education Association and other teachers groups.
Gov. Bob Mcdonnell, a Republican, had supported the measure.
Mr. Bell said that despite the bill’s failure, he would continue to support the issue.
“We’ll keep banging our heads against the wall until f inally, we’ll find a way through,” he said.
The same Senate committee on Thursday also killed an administration-backed bill that would allow local school districts the option of opening their doors before Labor Day.
The so-called “King’s Dominion” law is named after the theme park north of Richmond, because efforts to repeal it are consistently opposed by the state’s tourism and hospitality industry, which heavily relies on student labor during the summer. The industry argues the repeal could have a negative impact on tourism.
The bill’s patron, Delegate Robert Tata, Virginia Beach Republican, noted that 77 out of 132 of the state’s school divisions already have waivers that allow them to start school before Labor Day.
“We’re the only state on the East Coast that opens school after Labor Day,” Mr. Tata said afterward. “It’s been proven that it doesn’t affect tourism at all. What you lose at the end, you pick up at the beginning, and vice versa.”
But with Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican, lurking in the background of the room, the committee voted to kill the measure for a second time, having already dispatched the Senate version on the same 9-6 vote.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said there will be House action on President Obama’s contraception mandate, which the Senate voted against amending Thursday. But the Republican leader did not set a timetable for taking up the issue. The issue is likely to remain an issue through November.
Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, said of the Senate’s defeat of the Republicans’ contraception amendment Thursday: “We know this is just an attempt in a series of attempts. . . . We’re going to stand up, we’re going to fight back.” Three of her fellow Democrats crossed the aisle to vote with Republicans.