Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Under fierce election-year fire, President Barack Obama on Friday abruptly abandoned his stand that religious organizations must pay for free birth control for workers, scrambling to end a furor raging from the Catholic Church to Congress to his re-election foes. He demanded that insurance companies step in to provide the coverage instead.
Obama's compromise means ultimately that women would still get birth control without having to pay for it, no matter where they work. The president insisted he had stuck by that driving principle even in switching his approach, and the White House vehemently rejected any characterization that Obama had retreated under pressure.
Yet there was no doubt that Obama had found himself in an untenable position. He needed to walk back fast and find another route to his goal.
The controversy over contraception and religious liberty was overshadowing his agenda, threatening to alienate key voters and giving ammunition to the Republicans running for his job. It was a mess that knocked the White House off its message and vision for a second term.
Leaders from opposite sides of the divisive debate said they supported the outcome — or at least suggested they probably could live with it. Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, the head of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops and a fierce critic of the original rule covering hospitals and other employers, said the bishops were reserving judgment but that Obama's move was a good first step.
Conceding he wanted a resolution, Obama ordered advisers to find a middle ground in days, not within a year as had been the plan before the uproar. He said he spoke as a Christian who cherishes religious freedom and as a president unwilling to give up on free contraceptive care.
"I've been confident from the start that we could work out a sensible approach here, just as I promised," Obama said. "I understand some folks in Washington may want to treat this as another political wedge issue, but it shouldn't be. I certainly never saw it that way."
Under the new plan, religious employers such as charities, universities and hospitals will not have to offer contraception and will not have to refer their employees to places that provide it. If an employer opts out of the requirement, its insurance company must provide birth control for free in a separate arrangement with workers who want it.
"Very pleased," was how Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, reacted in a statement distributed by the White House. Her trade group represents Catholic hospitals that had fought against the birth control requirement, and Keehan said the new arrangement addresses the concerns it had.
Planned Parenthood, a prominent women's health organization, said Obama had reaffirmed his commitment to birth control coverage. The group's president, Cecile Richards, added, though, that it would be monitoring for "rigorous, fair and consistent" enforcement so women get the promised coverage.
Before announcing his decision to reporters, Obama telephoned Keehan, Richards and Dolan.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, many shrugged and said the rewrite did not change anything.
"It's an accounting trick," said Mike Gonzales of the Heritage Foundation. "Do they think people are stupid?"
The debate within the White House was intense even before the Jan. 20 decision was announced to exempt only churches and other houses of worships from the requirement that employers must cover free contraception. Other religious organizations were given an extra year to comply, but that concession didn't do enough.
First in a rumble, and then in a roar, critics formed a movement to overturn what they considered to be an egregious violation. Bishops assailed the policy in Sunday Masses and Republican leaders in Congress pledged to push a legislative repeal.
The White House seemed to be caught flatfooted.
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