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Dems Seize Message on Hill Hours Away from Contraceptive Mandate

A set of sweeping HHS policies including the mandate to offer contraceptive coverage without a co-payment is poised to quietly go into effect in a matter of hours.

Democrats hailed the Aug. 1 introduction of these Affordable Care Act services as a turning point at which the American public would finally grasp the magnitude of healthcare reform.

Republicans made a slight plea on the Senate floor for the upper chamber to take up an ObamaCare repeal vote, but were easily beat back by their counterparts on the other side of the aisle.

The new services that will be required to be offered under insurance plans without a co-payment are well-woman visits, gestational diabetes screening, domestic violence screening and counseling, contraception and contraceptive counseling, breastfeeding support and supplies, HPV DNA testings, sexually transmitted infections counseling, and HIV screening and counseling.

The Department of Health and Human Services heralded the change with a report released today stating that the mandate covers about 47 million women.

"The Obama administration will continue to work with all employers to give them the flexibility and resources they need to implement the health care law in a way that protects women’s health while making common-sense accommodations for values like religious liberty," the HHS said in a press release.

Up on the Hill, a coalition of Democrats commandeered the Senate floor to hail "a new day" in healthcare and tie Republican efforts to block or repeal the mandates to the November election.

"August 1 means that our long-fought battle will actually go into effect. And where does it go into effect? Well, it's already in effect on the federal law books," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). "Now it will go into effect in doctors' offices. Women will have access to the healthcare that their doctor says they need, not what an insurance company says they need or what some right-winger wants to take away from them."

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tried to get Democrats to agree to hold a vote on ObamaCare repeal, passed in the House earlier this month.

"Given the fact that our friends are going to focus on this particular bill this entire week, it would be a good idea to have a vote on that bill," McConnell said at the beginning of the Dems' speeches.

He suggested tacking on the repeal vote as an amendment to the cybersecurity bill being debated this week.

"Can you imagine how ridiculous my friend the Republican leader's statement is?" Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blasted in response. "I don't think a woman getting contraception has a thing to do with shutting down the power grids in America. … I can't remain very calm about this."

Reid noted that half of his 16 grandchildren are female, adding that "if they want some contraceptive device they should have the ability to do that."

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), referring to the amendment by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) in March to repeal the contraceptive mandate that was tacked onto a transportation bill, asked, "Is there a family-planing amendment on every bill now that will be offered by the Republicans?"

"I guess the answer's no," McConnell quipped, vowing to "request the opportunity" to bring a repeal vote to the floor again after Democrats "spend the week lauding the advantages of an intensely unpopular bill."

Blunt briefly mentioned ObamaCare at a media availability with McConnell after a closed policy luncheon, as Republican senators focused mainly on economic policy statements.

"The Republican leader said let's vote on it and see before we go home," Blunt said. "Of all the things we could be doing, talking about our position there, if they want to talk about the bill and take a position on it, the president's healthcare bill, I think it'd be a good thing to do."

"If they're proud of it I don't know why they wouldn't want to vote on it," McConnell added. "It doesn't have to slow the Senate down. We'd be willing to enter into a time agreement to have a very, very short debate."

Democrats on the floor said they couldn't understand why Republicans weren't sharing in their pride today.

"What is with this idea of repeal? Do you really want to take these benefits away from women, from children, from families?" said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "I don't know what motivates them … the only thing I can think of is they want to hurt this president."

"This isn't just a war against the pill," Durbin said. "This isn't a war against family planning. This is literally a war against women."

"Why don't we let Americans see the good parts of healthcare before we repeal it?" said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). "And we're not going to repeal it!" he quickly added.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), one of the key legislative architects behind propelling ObamaCare into law, warned of the new benefits that if Mitt Romney would be elected, "It's gone."

"Does that kind of give you some idea of how they feel about the women of America and the healthcare of our mothers, our sisters, our daughters?" he said. "I think it's more than passing curious that the Republican leader wants to vote to repeal it on the very day that we're expanding healthcare coverage for the women of America."

"I think women know what they're facing now coming up this fall," Harkin continued. "…I think the women of America need to have some deep soul searching about who they want deciding their fate after this presidential election."

Senate Democrats also held a press conference with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to laud tomorrow's launch. “President Obama is moving our country forward by giving women control over their health care,” Sebelius said. “This law puts women and their doctors, not insurance companies or the government, in charge of health care decisions.”

Special-interest groups added to the unified messaging front. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice launched a "Celebration, Education Campaign" on the contraceptive coverage going into effect under ObamaCare.

"Unfortunately, false prophets have been misleading the public about healthcare reform and especially about contraception," Rev. Harry Knox, leader of the group, told reporters on a conference call today. "These naysayers are spending their donor dollars and time on frivolous lawsuits against women's healthcare. We think this is an outrage."

At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney defended the mandates when asked about the challenges on religious grounds that have already been upheld by some state courts.

On Friday, the U.S. District Court for Colorado blocked the Obama administration from requiring that Hercules Industries, a Colorado-based air-conditioning company, provide the free contraceptive coverage because the company's owners oppose birth control on religious grounds. It's a case that takes debate over the mandate beyond exemption questions for faith-based institutions.

The company has a 3-month reprieve from the mandate, which carries hefty fines if violated, while the judge weighs its constitutionality.

"I’m not going to comment on specific litigation ...or broadly on it," Carney said. "I can tell you that we’re moving forward to implement this important rule that will ensure that women across the country have access to preventive services. It’s a rule that also makes sure that religious liberty is respected."

While the provisions face their test in court, though, they surely got a day of fanfare in Washington with little retort from the opposition.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was busy forging an agreement with Reid today to pass a six-month continuing budget resolution when they return from recess in September.

Seventeen Republican freshman including Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), whose repeal bill became the Blunt amendment, and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) will mark the first day of the HHS mandate with a press conference outside the Capitol tomorrow. “The real issues are whether the First Amendment is broad enough to include beliefs with which we disagree, and whether government can tacitly or otherwise force us to abandon our religious beliefs simply because something may constitute sound public policy in certain political circles,” Gowdy said.

The Senate floor today, though, belonged to ObamaCare and birth control.

"For some in this chamber, they wake up every day thinking about how they're going to stop President Obama, how they're going to stop his agenda, and how they're going to do everything they can to stop him from having a second term," Mikulski said. “Well, you can wake up every day thinking about how you want to stop America from moving forward. That's not how I spend my day."