Washington Digest: Senate deadlocks on Hobby Lobby bill

WASHINGTON — A bid by Democrats to negate the Supreme Court ruling in the Hobby Lobby case on insurance coverage for birth control was blocked in the U.S. Senate last week.

Republicans banded together to oppose a bill that would have re-established an employer’s responsibility to provide contraceptive coverage as part of the Affordable Care Act. The court in a 5-4 ruling said certain family-owned companies can cite religious objections to avoid buying health insurance for their workers that covers particular forms of contraceptives.

A procedural vote on the Democrats’ bill was 56-43, short of the 60 needed to advance it. All the votes against it were cast by Republicans, while three GOP senators — Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mark Kirk of Illinois — joined the Democratic caucus in voting for it.

The vote outcome was no surprise, as Democrats and Republicans had been jockeying over the case, particularly as it affects women whose votes are expected to be key in the November midterm elections.

Democrats argued the decision was a blow to women, effectively allowing their employers to make decisions affecting their use of contraceptives.

“Now is the time for our colleagues to answer a few basic questions: Who should be in charge of a woman’s health care decisions?” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said.

Republicans complained that Democrats were spinning the case for political gain, and that the court’s ruling was based on a religious freedom act Congress passed overwhelmingly in 1993. They argued they were not opposed to birth control.

“Nobody is talking about restricting access to contraceptives,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., voted against the bill. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted for the bill, then switched against it in a procedural move that allows him as majority leader to call it up for another vote in the future.

HOUSE REPLENISHES ROAD FUND

The House voted 367-55 for a $10.8 billion bill to restock the federal highway trust fund that is scheduled to run dry in a couple of weeks. The Senate was expected to act in the coming days.

Lawmakers conceded the bill was a short-term fix that will keep the federal account afloat for 10 months. Unwilling to raise gasoline taxes and unable to come up with other ways to sustain the fund, Congress so far has been unable to come up with a longer-term plan.

Members of Congress proved highly motivated by a Transportation Department announcement that it would begin reducing highway payments to states on Aug. 1 if they fail to replenish the fund.

A handful of conservatives argued many highway projects are plagued by wasteful spending and hampered by federal regulation. They said responsibility for roads should rest with the states.

Reps. Dina Titus and Steven Horsford, both D-Nev., and Joe Heck and Mark Amodei, both R-Nev., voted for the bill.

CHARITY TAX BREAKS ADVANCE

The House voted 277-130 to make permanent five charity-linked tax deductions. The tax breaks included those for donations of food and land, and extended the deadlines for including charitable donations on tax returns.

The deductions will mean a drop of more than $16 billion over 10 years to the U.S. Treasury, as the bill did not offset the tax breaks with new revenue from elsewhere.

“We should do everything we can to encourage Americans to give more,” said Rep. Dave Camp. R-Mich., the Ways and Means Committee chairman.

The Obama administration threatened to veto the bill. Democrats accused Republicans of hypocrisy for not demanding offsets for the tax breaks when they insist that other assistance such as hurricane relief and unemployment benefits be fully paid for by cuts elsewhere.

Titus, Horsford, Amodei and Heck voted for the bill.

ANOTHER MARIJUANA BOOST

The House voted to make it easier for banks to do business with marijuana providers in states where it is legal for recreational or medical uses. The proposal would remove an obstacle to the growth of the marijuana industry taking root in 34 states.

The amendment by Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., says the government cannot penalize financial institutions that provide services to any legal business that handles marijuana or marijuana products.

“This common sense measure would respect states’ rights, add more transparency, facilitate regulation, protect the public, and foster the growth of small business,” said Democratic Rep. Dina Titus of Nevada, one of the states that has legalized marijuana for medical use.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., said the amendment runs counter to federal law.

“It is still illegal under federal law to manufacture, to distribute, or to dispense marijuana,” he said. “There is also a federal law that says banks can’t launder the proceeds of illegal activities. The point is the law is the law … and I don’t think we can go around picking and choosing which states the federal law applies to.”

The Heck amendment passed, 231-192. Horsford, Joe Heck and Amodei joined Titus in voting for the amendment.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.

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