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Battle over contraception rule wages on

A compromise on contraception?
The Obama administration is working on new guidelines for contraception coverage requirements following a heated controversy with religious institutions. Norah O'Donnell reports. CBS News

Even after the White House on Friday announced a tweak in policy surrounding religious institutions' requirements for contraceptive coverage, controversy surrounding the issue continues unabated. Republicans on Monday continued to frame the matter as an issue of religious liberty, while women's health advocates are launching a national ad campaign aimed at building support for the effort.

In remarks at the conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation Monday, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., argued that the president's accommodation measures were no more than an "accounting gimmick" that didn't address the real issue at stake in the debate.

The rule in question has always exempted religious institutions, such as houses of worship, from providing their employees with mandated contraceptive coverage. Religiously-affiliated institutions including schools and hospitals, however, were not exempt. On Friday, after an uproar from the right, Mr. Obama announced in a press conference that the government would not force religiously-affiliated institutions to directly provide birth control coverage as part of their employees' health care coverage.

Instead, according to the new mandate, female employees of these religiously-affiliated institutions will have access to no-cost contraceptive coverage through the employee's health insurer, which will be required to offer the coverage for free. Religious organizations will not be required to refer women to the contraception coverage or subsidize it.

"I don't know how you could see it as anything but more of the same," Blunt said, of the change in language to the policy.

Blunt argued that the debate is "not about cost" but rather about faith-based institutions' right to moral objection.

"This is not a financial consideration - if you're opposed to something because it costs money, that's different from being opposed to it because you have a moral objection to it or a faith-based objection to it," he said. "This is about faith - it's not about cost."

"What has to be protected here is the faith-based rights of conscience. That's what this debate is about," he added.

In an appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called for Mr. Obama to "back down" on his decision, and promised that "this issue will not go away" until the administration had done so.

"They don't have the authority under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution to tell someone in this country or some organization in this country what their religious beliefs are," McConnell told "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer. "This is about the free exercise of religion."

Blunt last week attempted to attach an amendment to the federal highway reauthorization bill that specifically aimed "to protect rights of conscience with regard to requirements for coverage of specific items and services." Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., objected to the amendment, however, and it was not brought up for a vote.

Democrats, on the other hand, have largely backed the administration on the decision, and some women's health activists are making a push to gin up support for the rule among voters nationwide.

The women's health group NARAL Pro-choice America announced Monday it will spend a quarter of a million dollars on radio ads supporting the policy in key battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Northern Virginia, and Wisconsin. It will also roll out a $45,000 online ad and recruitment plan to publicize what they describe as "the threat to birth control."

Planned Parenthood lent the White House its support right out of the gate on Friday, announcing even before Mr. Obama had spoken that "We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman's ability to access these critical birth control benefits."

The issue has largely - although not exclusively - fallen along party lines within Congress, but some who had previously been rankled by the guidelines have signaled their support for the legislation in the wake of the White House's tweak to the rules.

Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both Maine moderates, have signaled that they will support the revised regulations.

Collins said in a statement Friday that the move "appears to be a step in the right direction."

"The administration's original plan was deeply flawed and clearly would have posed a threat to religious freedom. It presented the Catholic Church with its wide-ranging social, educational, and health care services, and many other faith-based organizations, with an impossible choice between violating their religious beliefs or violating federal regulations," she said. "The administration has finally listened to the concerns raised by many and appears to be seeking to avoid the threat to religious liberties posed by its original plan."

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