The Senate narrowly voted this morning to block a Republican challenge to President Obama's birth-control mandate.
The legislation, sponsored by Republican Roy Blunt of Missouri, was voted down 51 to 48. It would have let employers refuse to include contraception in health care coverage based on their "religious belief or moral conviction."
Blunt's legislation, an amendment to a transportation bill, was a response to Obama's mandate that contraception services be covered by most religious groups.
The amendment wasn't expected to pass. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he had allowed the vote because Republicans wouldn't let the transportation bill advance without a vote on the contraception measure. Democrats characterized the Blunt amendment as a measure that would deny women access to contraception.
After the vote the Senate Democratic leadership celebrated the win but noted the closeness of the vote, warning that Republicans will try again to bring the amendment up in future bills.
"The closeness of this vote shows how high the stakes are for women in this country," Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said at a press conference after the vote. "A Republican led-Senate might pass this bill. A Republican president like Mitt Romney would definitely sign it."
Before the vote, Blunt spoke on the floor of the Senate to argue that his proposal wouldn't change "the world that we live in right now." He said, "People have the same protection today to exert their religious views in their health care policies that they provide as an employer that they would have if this amendment passed.
"It may not change any minds today, but this issue will not go away unless the administration decides to take it away by giving people of faith these First Amendment protections," he said.
The White House opposed the measure in a statement from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who said that it would "allow employers that have no religious affiliation to exclude coverage of any health service, no matter how important, in the health plan they offer to their workers."
"The Obama administration believes that decisions about medical care should be made by a woman and her doctor, not a woman and her boss," she said. "We encourage the Senate to reject this cynical attempt to roll back decades of progress in women's health."
Reid, speaking before the vote, said that the amendment "would allow any employer or insurer to deny coverage for virtually any treatment for virtually any reason."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky focused on Obama, saying, "This is precisely the kind of thing the founders fear. It was precisely because of the danger of a government intrusion into religion like this one that they left us the First Amendment in the first place, so that we could always point to it and say no government - no government - no president has that right. Religious institutions are free to decide what they believe, and the government must respect their right to do so."
Obama drew criticism from conservatives last month after announcing his birth-control mandate, although he later allowed faith-based employers to opt out of the rule, winning over some Catholics.
Some Democratic senators representing more conservative parts of the country had a tricky vote today. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, for example, were either against or expressed reservations about the original and updated mandate. McCaskill voted with the Democrats today, while Casey, Manchin and Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska sided with the GOP.
The Blunt amendment drew more attention Wedensday night as Mitt Romney's campaign was forced to mop up the front-runner's comments to an Ohio reporter about the legislation. He first said he didn't support it, but his campaign later insisted that he did, arguing that the question from the reporter was confusing.