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Hobby Lobby Bill on Fast Track for Senate Action

By Melissa Attias, CQ Roll Call

July 9, 2014 -- Legislation designed to preserve women's access to birth control in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling could see Senate action as soon as next week, after House and Senate Democrats introduce companion bills.

Sen. Patty Murray confirmed that the measure she and her colleagues are bringing forward is the bill that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he wants to act on this work period. 

The Washington Democrat's comments came after House and Senate Democrats and advocates unveiled the bills at a press conference. At the event, Murray said the Senate version has 40 cosponsors, but that no Republicans are on board. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said she spoke with several Republicans about the House bill last week and is hopeful that some will sign on.

But after many GOP lawmakers put out statement's praising the high court's June 30 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, it is highly unlikely that the bill will amass enough Republican support to pass. The Supreme Court said in a 5-4 ruling that the Obama administration cannot require "closely held" businesses with religious objections to provide free birth control coverage under the health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152).

That means the bills are likely to serve as a way to rally voters for the midterm elections and put lawmakers on the record on the issue.

"At Planned Parenthood, we are committed to mobilizing women across the country to help pass this bill and make sure that everyone knows where their elected officials are standing–whether they're standing for them, or whether they're standing in the way of access to basic health care," said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

The bill would prevent employers from refusing to cover contraception or any other type of health coverage guaranteed under federal law for their employees and dependents, according to a summary. It also would maintain that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (PL 103-141), which was at the center of the Hobby Lobby challenge, and other federal laws do not allow employers to decline to comply with the health law's requirement.

In addition, the bill would maintain the administration's exemption for churches and other religious institutions and the workaround that prevents religious nonprofits such as hospitals from having to directly arrange or pay for the coverage.

Murray said the measure does not amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but lawmakers suggested that they could address the law in future legislation. DeGette noted that House members are looking at the longer-term issues but wanted to join the Senate now with a targeted fix.

"I think it's essential that we look at that, but first things first," added Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "We're being very pragmatic here. We want to make sure that women are treated equally."

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