WASHINGTON — Hammered by Republicans and the Catholic Church, the White House hinted at compromise Tuesday as it struggled to calm an election-year uproar caused by its rule requiring religious schools and hospitals to provide employees with access to free birth control.
Obama's chief spokesman and his top campaign strategist both said the administration was searching for ways to allay the concern of Roman Catholics who say the birth control mandate would force them to violate their religious beliefs against contraception. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the policy was a "huge mistake" that the administration should reconsider. "And if they don't, Congress will act," McConnell said.
On the campaign trail, GOP presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich heaped new criticism on the president, with Romney accusing Obama of an "assault on religion" and Gingrich calling the rule an "attack on the Catholic Church."
Obama's spokesman defended the decision that prompted the flare-up, even as he raised the prospect of some adjustment. He said women working for church-affiliated employers must be able to get contraception, but he also made clear that the White House wants to accommodate the concerns of the employers who would be required to provide birth control coverage regardless of their religious beliefs.
"There are ways to, I think, help resolve this issue that ensures that we provide that important preventive service, that health care coverage, to all women ... in a way that also tries to allay some of these concerns," press secretary Jay Carney said.
The spokesman did not say what those ways might be but said there were "a lot of different ideas out there."
Separately, Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod made the same point. "The real question is how do we get together and resolve this in a way that respects the concerns that have been raised but also assures women across this country that they're going to have the preventive care that they need," Axelrod said on MSNBC.
The comments by Axelrod and Carney created a sense that the White House's public emphasis has clearly shifted and that further accommodation would be considered. But there was no sign the administration would move to completely withdraw the rule, and it was unclear that the White House could strike the balance of ensuring contraceptive coverage for all while defusing the fierce opposition of some religious groups when those two points are in conflict.
Some Catholic supporters of the administration said they had noticed a shift in White House rhetoric that gave them hope a compromise could be worked out.
"Publicly you can see a change in the administration," said Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats For Life of America. "It's very different from what was said before, that this is final and nothing is going to change."
Options for a compromise could include granting leeway for a church-affiliated employer not to cover birth control, provided it referred employees to an insurer who would provide the coverage.
Another idea, previously rejected by the administration, calls for broadening the definition of a religious employer that would be exempt from the mandate beyond houses of worship and institutions whose primary purpose is to spread the faith. That broader approach would track a definition currently used by the IRS, bringing in schools, hospitals and social service agencies that deal with the general public.
The president of the Catholic Health Association, a trade group representing Catholic hospitals that defied church bishops to provide critical support for Obama's health care law and is now fighting the birth control requirement, said she thinks the administration is starting to feel the pressure.
"I do know many people who care about this administration and this president and the good works that Catholic organizations have done are raising this issue," said Sister Carol Keehan. "I do know the administration is concerned. This was never done with the intent of creating a huge problem for the Catholic Church, but it certainly ended up doing that."
Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.