Politics
FILE - In this Oct. 31, 2011 file photo, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is seen in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington. Federal law lays out several criteria for the government to determine which are religious. But in the case of the contraception mandate, critics say Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius chose the narrowest ones. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File) FILE - In this Oct. 31, 2011 file photo, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is seen in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington. Federal law lays out several criteria for the government to determine which are religious. But in the case of the contraception mandate, critics say Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius chose the narrowest ones. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)  

Obama spokesman hints at concession over church health care mandate

Neil Munro
White House Correspondent

White House spokesman Jay Carney today hinted that the Obama administration might compromise on its Jan. 20 directive requiring religious groups to comply with federal sex-related health insurance mandates.

Obama’s policy will require religious groups to pay fines if they decline to comply with the president’s ethical preferences regarding health insurance and contraception beginning in 2013.

“We will continue to have discussions about ways that the implementation can be done that might address some of these [constitutional and religious] concerns,” Carney said when questioned by several skeptical journalists, including Eleanor Clift, a liberal columnist.

But Carney’s repetition of the administration’s talking points obscured any outline of a compromise. The growing scandal threatens to further weaken Obama’s electability in the critical swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Even as Carney touted the health care law’s mandate, he also tried to distance Obama himself from the controversy, passing the blame to Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

“I want to make clear that the president’s — or, the secretary’s — decision, and the president concurs with it, is that this [contraception] coverage needs to be available to all American women,” Carney said.

Other Democrats refused to given any ground, despite a hostile reaction to the directive by some liberal media outlets and some of Obama’s grassroots supporters.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, briefly defended the policy when questioned at a Hill press conference. “First of all, I am going to stick with my fellow Catholics in supporting the administration on this,” she said. “I think it was a very courageous decision that they made, and I support it,” she said before inviting a different question from another reporter.

On Sunday, Democratic Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley defended the policy on CNN. “There has been a little bit too much hyperventilating over this issue… most of those members of that [Catholic] hierarchy are also Republicans,” said O’Malley, who is jockeying to replace Obama in 2016.

Obama’s Jan. 20 decision was based on portions of the Democrats’ 2010 health care overhaul law, which put most of the nation’s medical sector under stringent government supervision.

Obama used the law to require religious groups, principally the Catholic church, to include no-cost contraception and some abortion-related services in the medical insurance programs they provide to their employees outside churches.

These non-church employees work at hospitals, universities, schools, charities and other centers that serve Catholics and non-Catholics alike — a non-discriminatory posture required by the Catholic faith.

The far-reaching decision will bolster Obama’s feminist supporters who want the federal government’s moral backing for contraceptive services.

It also risks further alienating swing-voting Catholics, however, in the months leading up to the November election.

In the last few weeks, 165 Catholic bishops — or roughly 90 percent of all U.S. bishops — plus all 53 Christian Orthodox bishops, have strongly opposed the federal government requirement as an unconstitutional intrusion into church affairs.

Obama won the support of a slight majority of Catholics in 2008.

A Pew poll taken last month shows him leading former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney by only four points overall, 49 percent 45 percent.

But among non-Hispanic Catholics, Romney leads 53 percent to 40 percent, giving him a boost in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and perhaps in other states where the Roman Catholic faith is practiced most widely.

Follow Neil on Twitter