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Obama and Catholics: Why he revised contraception coverage rule

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WASHINGTON -- Why did President Barack Obama back down?

Obama made an unnecessary stumble in his quest to provide health insurance covering contraception for women because he underestimated the swift and vociferous reaction of the Catholic Church.

Under attack by Catholic bishops, Obama on Friday revised a federal rule announced just weeks ago -- Jan. 20 -- mandating religious employers to offer contraceptive coverage for women in their insurance plans. Under the revision, women working for a religious employer -- such as a hospital or a nonprofit -- will still get the insurance benefit -- just not directly from the employer.

The obvious question is, why didn't he do this in the first place and avoid the controversy?

One part of the answer is that the safety net advocates for the rule installed -- which they thought would buy Obama time to deal with church concerns -- was impractical.

Under the original proposal by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, nonprofit employers who "based on religious beliefs" didn't want to provide contraception coverage were given until Aug. 1, 2013 -- well past the November election -- to comply.

On Friday, Obama sped up that timetable. A senior administration official told me, "We thought we would take the year grace period to figure it out. [Obama] always intended to achieve full coverage for women and respect religious freedom. At the time that Kathleen Sebelius announced her decision a few weeks ago, she tried to make it clear that there was still work to do. Unfortunately, in this climate, that point got lost."

Another part of the answer is that Obama did not anticipate that he would create a big problem for allies -- especially in battleground states he needs to win in November.

I'm told his wake-up call on that came when former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine -- a close friend and early backer of Obama's 2008 presidential bid and former Democratic National Committee chairman who is now running for a Senate seat -- broke with Obama over the rule.

In past days a lot of stories have been written about the considerable White House internal debate over how to handle the new contraception coverage rules being put in place as part of Obama's Affordable Care Act.

Three Chicago figures -- former Chief of Staff Bill Daley; Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, and Tina Tchen, in her role as executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, not wearing her other hat as first lady Michelle Obama's chief of staff -- were among the key players in the long-running discussions about what everyone always knew was a volatile issue.

The Obama team disagreed over strategy and tactics, breaking along -- though not exclusively -- gender lines.

Everyone always agreed -- and this point should not be lost -- about the policy goals: providing women with contraceptive coverage without co-pays or deductibles, no matter the employer.

Daley, Vice President Joe Biden -- with deep experience with Catholic politics -- and a deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough, who has Obama's ear on Catholic matters, saw the coverage rule first proposed by Sebelius last August as boxing in the administration.

Their warnings proved accurate.

The narrowly drawn rule did inflame some Catholic leaders and allowed critics -- including GOP presidential candidates -- to make it a matter of religious liberty rather than contraception.

The resulting flap risks alienating independent Catholic swing voters -- who backed Obama in 2008 and whom he needs again in 2012.

Obama will also need an outpouring of female support to win a second term.

Sebelius, Jarrett -- who is also chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls -- Tchen and women's groups with whom they consulted did not see the coverage mandate as too narrow.

They knew paying for contraceptives was a concern for lower-income younger women. They had science on their side: Contraception coverage was recommended by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science.

And polling showed that contraception was wildly popular among female Catholics.

Another part of the answer of why Obama backed down is that the women's groups, the dependable White House allies, did not all have their acts entirely together to react quickly.

That's in part because last week, when the trouble heated up, the groups were running what was a successful campaign to force the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation to back down and reverse its decision to ban funding for Planned Parenthood breast-cancer screenings.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on February 11, 2012 11:32 AM.

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