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U.S. Democrats aim to turn contraception into campaign drive

An illustration picture shows a woman holding a birth control pill at her home in Nice January 3, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
An illustration picture shows a woman holding a birth control pill at her home in Nice January 3, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Democrats hope to turn their legal setback on Obamacare and contraception into a winning autumn campaign issue by pushing legislation requiring employers to include birth control in healthcare coverage.

Democrats in the Senate and House of Representatives unveiled bills on Tuesday to override last week's Supreme Court 5-4 ruling that allowed closely held corporations to forego for religious reasons President Barack Obama's healthcare regulation requiring insurance plans to cover contraceptives.

The proposed legislation would bar employers from discriminating against female employees in coverage of preventive health services, including contraception.

The Democratic-controlled Senate is expected to vote on a measure introduced by Senator Patty Murray of Washington and Senator Mark Udall of Colorado before Congress breaks for August recess.

Three House Democrats hope to introduce a companion bill in their Republican-controlled chamber, but the legislation would have little chance of passage.

But Democrats, women's groups and other advocates say it could serve as an impetus to bring women to the polls, particularly in contested races that could determine control of the Senate.

"People are going to walk down here and vote. And if they vote with the five men on the Supreme Court, I think they're going to be treated unfavorably come November," Senate Majority leader Harry Reid told reporters.

Republicans see the Supreme Court's June 30 ruling for Hobby Lobby, a retail crafts company owned by a devout Pentecostal, as a victory for religious conservatives.

North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis, who is challenging Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan in North Carolina, responded to the court decision with the tweet: "Today’s SCOTUS rulings were a win for our 1st Amendment freedoms, a loss for Hagan, Obama, & D.C. bureaucrats."

Democrats hope to cast such comments as evidence that Republicans oppose all birth control for women, not just methods such as the morning-after pill that religious conservatives view as tantamount to abortion. They cite public opinion polls showing a majority of Americans favor including contraception in healthcare coverage.

  "It's an issue that will anger and energize women voters and hurt Republican candidates in the fall," said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Republicans, who have long expected Democrats to ressurrect what they call a conservative "war on women," dismissed the threat.

"Polling shows that when we fight back women believe in what we're saying and we're aggressively arming our candidates to do so," said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski.

Some analysts say a strong Democratic messaging campaign could hold surprises for Republicans.

"Because the issue is contraception and not abortion, it may resonate with moderate conservative women who are pro-life," said Kelly Dittmar, research professor at the Center for American Women and Politics.

"But it would mostly give Democrats a way to energize their base and expand their reach among single women, who don't vote as reliably as married women and can really make a difference in an election when they do."

(Editing by Caren Bohan, Eric Walsh and Andrew Hay)

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