WASHINGTON (AP) — Conservatives said Sunday the flap surrounding President Barack Obama's birth control mandate was far from over, with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell saying he'll push to overturn the requirement because it was another example of government meddling.
While a senior White House official shrugged off such remarks, declaring the issue resolved and new legislation unlikely, the heated rhetoric from Republicans suggested the GOP would try to keep the debate alive in an election year to rally conservatives and seize upon voter frustration with big government.
"It's riddled with constitutional problems," McConnell said of Obama's broader health-care plan. "And this is what happens when the government tries to take over health care and tries to interfere with your religious beliefs."
Last week, Obama backed down on a mandate that religious-affiliated employers such as Catholic hospitals and colleges cover birth control in their health insurance plans. In a tweak of the rule, those employees would be offered free coverage directly from their health insurer. But employers would not provide or pay for it.
The White House says the plan won't drive up costs because birth control, similar to other preventative care measures, is less expensive than pregnancy. But opponents say that unless drug makers stop charging for contraception, the cost is likely to get passed on to employers regardless.
While some Catholic groups applauded the move, including the Catholic Health Association, the nation's Catholic bishops said it continued the attack religious freedoms — a theme quickly picked up by Republicans trying to wrest control of the White House this November.
"There's no compromise here," said GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, a Catholic and favorite among religious conservatives. "They are forcing religious organizations, either directly or indirectly, to pay for something that they find is a deeply, morally, you know, wrong thing. And this is not what the government should be doing."
In several televised interviews, White House chief of staff Jacob Lew defended the latest plan as the best possible compromise to provide women access to contraceptives and respect the religious freedoms of employers. Churches had always been exempt under Obama's original plan, although religious-affiliated organizations were not.
"We didn't expect to get universal support of the bishops or all Catholics," he said. "I think that what we have here is a policy that reflects bringing together two very important principles in a way that's true to the American tradition."
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has called Obama's revised plan an "accounting gimmick." He introduced legislation last week that would exempt any organization with moral objections from providing birth control. McConnell said he expects such a bill would be vetoed by the president but that he still wanted a vote "as soon as possible."
House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan said there were enough votes in the Republican-controlled House to pass similar legislation.
"If this is what the president's willing to do in a tough election year, imagine what he will do in implementing the rest of his health care law after an election," Ryan, R-Wis., told ABC News "This Week."
Lew shrugged off questions about Senate legislation, predicting that they would not "come to pass" and that the president planned to move ahead with implementing the current plan.
"We're going to go ahead and implement it," Lew said. "And women are going to have access (to contraception) and institutions like Catholic universities and Catholic hospitals will not be in the position that they had feared. I think that's a good resolution."
Santorum and Lew spoke on NBC's "Meet the Press." McConnell and Lew spoke on CBS "Face the Nation." Lew also spoke on Fox News Sunday, CNN's "State of the Union" and ABC News "This Week."