Earlier this week, the National Catholic Register reported that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, headed up by New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, intends to lobby Congress for "conscience exemptions" to abortion mandates implemented by the Department of Health and Human Services as part of Obamacare.
In March, Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) introduced the "Respect for Rights of Conscience Bill" in the House, and Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) introduced its Senate counterpart. The Fortenberry-Blunt bill has languished in both houses, though attempts to attach it to appropriations bills have come close.
That same month, the Senate defeated the Blunt Amendment to an appropriations bill that the Washington Post reported "would have allowed not only religious groups but any employer with moral objections to opt out of the coverage requirement. And it would have allowed such employers to do so in the case of not only contraception but any health service required by the 2010 health-care law," by a 51 to 48 vote.
Richard Doerflinger, the associate director of the organization's pro-life activities, laid out the agenda for both houses.
In the next Senate, Doerflinger argued, the departure of pro-life opponent Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and the arrival of pro-life Joe Donnelly (D-IN) offered some hope. According to Doerflinger:
The only time that a conscience measure for the mandate [the Blunt Amendment] was considered in the Senate it got 48 votes, with very little time to explain the issues.
Getting to 50 or 51 votes in the Senate could happen, especially if you can attach legislation to a must-pass vehicle, where you have leverage to trade back and forth, to get policy riders approved. We are not giving up on that and will continue to pursue this agenda.
In the current House, the Fortenberry-Blunt bill has not made it out of committee. In the next House, Doerflinger saw some possibilities:
Right now, the House committee draft of the Labor/HHS appropriations bill has language like that of the Fortenberry-Blunt bill. I believe the House leadership will fight for that in negotiations with the Senate. . .We will be urging Catholics to write to their congressional representatives in support of that provision — Section 537 of the Labor/HHS appropriations bill.
We see every reason to continue our efforts in both Congress and the courts and to continue to ask the administration to take a more flexible view of the conscience issues involved.
If the conscience mandate were to pass both Houses, President Obama's veto pen stands in the way of turning the "consience exemptions" into statuory law. Doerflinger acknowledges the president's opposition, but envisions a scenario in which he might sign enabling legislation into law:
Perhaps if the alternative is to veto a bill he favors, like an entire appropriations bill. Then perhaps he would.
While passage of "conscience exemptions" in both houses is a high hurdle to clear, securing the President's signature on any such legislation will be almost impossible.