Negotiations over the debt limit and reopening the government are still fluid, but there’s been little public talk lately about the so-called “conscience clause” allowing employers to reject birth control coverage for their employees. But according to the Washington Post, Paul Ryan, is still hammering away at it behind closed doors. Much like the broader push to use the shutdown and the debt limit as leverage to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act, to which the conscience clause was attached, the effort appears doomed. So why is Paul Ryan still on board?
First, he’s taking his cues from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who helped set the tone for the 2012 opposition to contraception coverage in Obamacare. And they still haven’t given up. At the Values Voter Summit over the weekend, the USCCB’s powerful lobbyist acknowledged that “the only way to get the Senate to deal with” contraception coverage is getting it “attached to must-pass legislation,” Adele Stan at RH Reality Check reported. The Bishops had also outlined this strategy in a September 26 letter to lawmakers.
Ryan may also be looking to 2016, betting that Rick Santorum’s early Republican primary success on the issue can be replicated. Ryan isn’t pushing the issue in public, though—perhaps mindful that in the general election, Mitt Romney’s support for a conscience clause was relentlessly used against him to turn out unmarried women, two thirds of whom voted for Obama. In his video message to the summit, Ryan said, “I want to make the most of this moment,” but stuck to the budget. He did say, “I too am a values voter. I too believe that what makes us different, what sets us apart is our beliefs…The way our see it, our job is to preserve our values in the 21st century.”
So far, reproductive health advocates don’t sound particularly worried that birth control access will be the ransom for keeping the government and the economy going, though anything could change. They have the politics on their side, and not just in a presidential race. When a previous version of the clause, known as the Blunt amendment, died in the Senate in 2012, Sen. Chuck Schumer predicted, “I think it’s going to be awfully hard to defend it back home, especially in places like New England.” He was right: Both Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts successfully used the issue in their campaigns. Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski also disavowed her vote for the amendment, saying, “Back home, it was being viewed as a direct attack on women’s reproductive rights, on their ability to access contraception.” Wonder where anyone would get that idea.