A GOP-led attempt to roll back new rules requiring insurance companies to provide free contraceptive care was dismissed by the Senate -- a rejection of a Republican pivot toward conservative social issues and a victory for President Obama's healthcare law.
The 51-48 vote to table the Republican measure showed dissent among the GOP, as several Republican senators said the legislation was too broad for their support.
Republicans say the new Obama administration policy is an affront to religious freedom and an example of the administration's regulatory overreach. The U.S. Catholic bishops oppose the rule.
"The reason that this amendment is being debated right now is that the administration issued an order that's just unprecedented," said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the bill's chief sponsor.
As part of the nation's new healthcare law, employers would be required to offer free preventive care services in their insurance policies, including contraceptives. An exemption was made for churches and other religious organizations that object on moral grounds, and whose employees largely adhere to their beliefs.
Facing blowback from sought-after Catholic voters, the White House crafted a further compromise that tasked insurance companies with paying for the free care. The American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network and others support the new rule as a way to ensure Americans have access to what they call life-saving preventive healthcare.
The foray into social issues has divided the GOP at a time when socially conservative presidential candidate Rick Santorum continues to challenge Mitt Romney. Many Republicans believe the party should remain focused on jobs and the economy, issues most pressing among voters.
Democrats have capitalized on the debate by portraying the GOP as out-of-touch with most women and turning back the clock on women's healthcare.
"The principle mantra of Republicans on the campaign trail is that they seek more freedom for the American people," Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said. "With women, the Republicans have a different idea about freedom. They want the government to interfere in the most personal aspects of women's lives."
The measure also divided Democrats, as three Democrats, Sens. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska voted to keep the measure. One Republican, retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, joined Democrats in turning it back.
Some on both sides of the aisle decried what they considered a political sideshow. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) noted that the measure was an amendment to a transportation bill. "How is this conversation relevant to job creation or to infrastructure?" he asked.
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."
Earlier this week, Romney stumbled on the issue, first appearing to oppose the GOP measure sponsored by Blunt before his campaign clarified that he had misunderstood the question.
"I'm in favor of the Blunt amendment,"he told CBS News while working the rope line and signing autographs with voters in Fargo, N.D.
Times staff writer Maeve Reston in Fargo contributed to this report.