WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Democratic-led Senate is expected reject as early as Thursday a largely symbolic Republican challenge to a White House rule guaranteeing free birth control for women who work for religiously affiliated employers.
Even Senate defeat of the legislation would allow Republican lawmakers to take a stand in a rancorous election year debate over a policy that is vehemently opposed by social conservatives and Roman Catholic bishops.
An aide to the Senate Democratic leadership said the measure introduced by Republican Roy Blunt could be voted on Thursday, but also held out the possibility of action near the end of the month when Congress returns from a week-long break.
The Department of Health and Human Services announced in January that employers including those with religious affiliations -- such as universities, charities and hospitals -- would have to provide free birth control coverage for women enrolled in their health plans. Church employees are exempt from the rule.
The healthcare overhaul enacted as the centerpiece of President Barack Obama's domestic agenda mandates free birth control. The law is already facing major legal, legislative and political challenges.
The birth control coverage requirement infuriated Catholic leaders, who condemned the rule as a violation of constitutional religious freedoms. The White House responded last Friday with a compromise that shifted the onus for providing birth control coverage to insurance companies instead.
But much of the opposition remained. Blunt's bill would exempt employers from providing health benefits that conflict with "beliefs and moral convictions."
Democrats including California Senator Barbara Boxer denounced the measure as too broad, saying it could allow potentially any employer to deny additional types of health insurance coverage on moral grounds.
"This is unequivocally false," Blunt's office said in a release.
Blunt maintains that his legislation, which is expected to be introduced as an amendment to a bill to upgrade roads and bridges, simply enforces longstanding "conscience protections."
"Federal courts are well equipped to identify spurious claims," his office said.
(Reporting By David Morgan and Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Jackie Frank)