Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine was the only Republican who did not vote for… (Carolyn Kaster, Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — Senate Republicans, who narrowly lost a bid to roll back new federal insurance rules requiring contraceptive coverage, were decidedly circumspect after being portrayed by Democrats as trying to interfere with women's health options.
"I don't have anything else to say," said Sen. John McCain(R-Ariz.), after the GOP's effort Thursday to curb the rule failed 51 to 48.
Other Republicans were only a bit more talkative, and they quickly shifted their remarks to the other issues — jobs and the economy — suggesting that the contraception fight may have waning appeal for the GOP.
"It was a good vote, but we do need to be focused on some of these debt issues — they're just huge," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the chairman of the Budget Committee.
All Republicans, except retiring Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, voted for the legislation. Championed by Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the bill would have allowed any employer to decline to cover contraception or any other healthcare service that it objected to on moral grounds. Only such a broad exemption, Republicans argued, could preserve employers' religious liberty.
But even as she voted with her party, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she hoped the chamber would "move forward to address the many important, pressing issues facing in our nation, and stop engaging in what is clearly an election-year ploy."
Three Democrats joined the GOP on the vote — Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
House Speaker John A. Boehner(R-Ohio) has vowed to continue to press the legislation.
The contraceptive rule springs from the nation's new healthcare law, which requires employers to cover preventive care, including contraceptives, at no cost. The Obama administration initially granted an exemption from the requirement to churches and synagogues, but not to religiously affiliated organizations like Catholic hospitals and universities.
Facing blowback from sought-after Catholic voters, the White House crafted a further compromise that directed insurers to pay for the birth control — a change that appeased key Catholic leaders but not the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged Thursday that the administration's first pass at the new rule "got screwed up," according to video of his talk at Idaho State University, as Politico first reported.
Still, Americans support the Obama administration's current approach, according to new Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
The battle over birth control coverage is occurring as a historic number of women are running for the male-dominated Senate.
Both sides have used the issue for fundraising efforts, but Democrats believe they have found a potential opening with independent female voters they will need this election year.
Almost all the leading Democratic women running for the Senate — a record six incumbents and five challengers — will embark next week on a Western state campaign swing, including a stop in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco hosted by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple's Steve Jobs.
"If you don't like what Republicans are doing, send a woman to the Senate," says a new online ad featuring the 11 women. "In fact, send them all."
Republicans believe this is a risky strategy for the Democratic women candidates, especially those in more conservative-leaning states where there is broader support for the measure.
The foray into social issues has divided the GOP. Earlier this week, presidential candidate Mitt Romney stumbled on the issue, first appearing to oppose the contraceptive measure before his campaign clarified that he had misunderstood the question.
"I'm in favor of the Blunt amendment," he told CBS News while signing autographs with voters in Fargo, N.D.
Staff Writer Mauve Reston in Fargo, N.D., contributed to this report.