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Mr. KERRY. Mr. President, this is obviously a difficult time in our politics--the polarization. It is a difficult time in the Senate, in particular, because over the years this has been a place where we have prided ourselves on really working to find ways to avoid the kind of polarization we see today and actually to find the common denominator on a number of sensitive issues.
I think our friend from Maine, Senator Snowe, spoke for many of us this week when she talked about the ``my way or the highway'' approaches to partisan politics that have made it harder for people to work with each other and actually get things done. I would never speak for her, but I think given her diagnosis of what is wrong with the Senate today, she has made a decision not to run for reelection. I think the amendment we are debating today, frankly, is exhibit A.
Two years ago many of us voted to end an era where many Americans felt that women in particular but poor people and others also were put into a position of a second-tier status with respect to access to health care in America. There were so many discrepancies. One example, for instance, that was in error before the reform we passed was where Viagra was covered for men, at no cost, by insurance companies but contraception, which 99 percent of American women use, was not covered. So we addressed this issue in the reform we passed, Congress sent it to the President, and the President signed it.
The administration then took the time appropriate. Recognizing the difficulty of implementing some of this, they allowed for a time period in order to be able to work through the rules. When they did come out with the first rule, I regret that they came out with a rule that many of us felt--I felt and shared with others in America--a sense that it was not going to work. There was a firestorm in the country over that for a brief period of time. I spoke out in our caucus, and I said I thought there was a better way to try to deal with that that created a balance between the first amendment requirements and the needs of people to be able to have access and be protected. I didn't think it was and I don't think today it is right to force a religiously affiliated institution to pay for contraception if it violates fundamental religious beliefs.
I am glad to say that the administration--the White House, which I think perhaps hadn't been able to see all of the implications of what had happened at that point in time--quickly moved to recognize that indeed the rule was not proposed as it ought to be, and they changed it. They responded. That was the right decision.
This week, Secretary Sebelius made it clear they are still working with the faith community on a final rule that will address the concerns of my church and of other institutions which are self-insured.
But with all due respect to what the Senator from Maine, Senator Collins, said a few minutes ago, Secretary Sebelius said publicly, after the Senate Finance Committee hearing on this subject on the budget, whether it is an insured plan or self-insured plan, the employer who has a religious objection doesn't have to directly offer or pay for contraception. So I take issue. I believe the letter the Senator received actually addresses this question and says they are working with the community, as I believe they ought to, in order to come up with a means of guaranteeing that self-insurance will be protected, as I believe it ought to be protected.
But I don't believe we ought to embrace the Blunt amendment as this broad-based opening of Pandora's box that carries with it all kinds of other risks and potential mischief. We don't have to do that in order to protect the self-insured here. I think it is important to work together with patience to try to find a way to do no harm, if you will, to the Constitution or to the rights of women in this country to access health care.
I believe in the spirit of the amendment that is in front of us today. I know the Senator from Missouri acts in good faith personally, and I respect that. But language is always important, critical in legislating, and the language is overbroad. If there is one thing I know after 27 years of legislating here, it is that when you are writing legislation, it is critical to understand the implications of the language you use. Precision matters. This amendment opens the potential for overly broad and vague exceptions that could allow children to be denied immunizations. It could allow a company--and a company is quite different from an individual's right to protection under the Constitution--to actually object to mental health services. It could allow for the denial of HIV screenings because people think somehow that is a disease that belongs to a category they object to in terms of social life and structure in America. It would allow, potentially, the objection of maternity care for single mothers because people have an objection to a single mother being pregnant and having a child.
There is all kinds of mischief that could be implemented as a consequence of people's assertion of a belief that is not in fact covered under the first amendment but which, as a result of the language in this amendment, could be swept into some claim, and I don't think we should do that. That is not good legislating. That is dangerous.
I was interested to hear the minority leader this morning assert some things about the first amendment. I think they are absolutely incorrect. The first amendment is a guarantee that religious liberty will be protected in America and that government will not institute one religion or another or establish a religion for the Nation. It also says no religious view will be imposed on anybody. The Blunt amendment is, in fact, an assault on that protection of the first amendment because it imposes one view on a whole bunch of people who don't share that view or on those who want to choose for themselves.
The Affordable Care Act and the President's compromise and the final rule leave all of the existing conscience clause provisions in place--it doesn't change them at all--while adding additional protection for churches and for religious organizations. The administration's compromise regulation, endorsed by the Catholic Hospital Association and other religious organizations, maintains conscience protections so that any religious employer with objections to coverage of contraceptive services will not be required to provide, refer, or pay for these services. Furthermore, all churches and houses of worship are exempt from the compromise regulation.
In fact, as the Women's Law Center pointed out:
Under current law, individuals and entities who wish to refuse a role in abortion services are protected by three different federal laws, the Church Amendments (42 U.S.C. 300a 7), the Coats Amendment (42 U.S.C. 238n), and the Weldon Amendment, which is attached to the Labor-HHS appropriations bill each year. The health care reform law explicitly said it would not have any effect on these laws, meaning these were the law of the land before the health care reform law and continue to be the law now. So, the Blunt Amendment doesn't ``restore'' these rights because they never went away. What could the Blunt Amendment be about, then? Before the health care reform law, refusals happened all the time, and that was a big part of the problem that the health care reform law was meant to address. People were refused coverage for things like having had a C-section or being a cancer survivor. Insurance plans refused to provide coverage for services, like maternity care or mental health. But to call the refusals that happened before health care reform a ``conscience right'' is a mischaracterization. Refusals were business as usual. They had very little, if anything, to do with an individual's or insurance company's conscience. They had to do with insurance companies refusing coverage for things they didn't find profitable. And by granting a huge loophole with its permission to refuse coverage based on ``moral considerations'' the Blunt Amendment would take us right back there, while hiding under the guise of ``conscience rights.''
I have met with and had conversations with conscientious people in my Church, because it is important to listen to help find answers to these difficult questions. It has left me convinced that we don't have to support a back-door dismantling of health care rights to protect religious liberty. The administration's dialogue with the faith community to reach a final accord that protects patients, including women, and also protects religious liberty is a far better outcome than to have the Senate rush to undercut that effort and pass something that is overly broad, risking dangerous unintended consequences.
Mr. President, this amendment would be a mistake--for women, for health care, for millions of Americans who don't want to go back to the days when they could be denied care for any reason. We don't need to drive another wedge in our politics. We need to drive towards that common denominator, that common ground--and that is why this amendment must be defeated.
I would simply close by saying the Senate should not rush to undercut the protections already in place and which, ultimately, would undermine the teachings of my church, which argues that social conscience and values ought to be primarily established by caring for our sick, and this would in fact deny that, to some degree.
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