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Minn., ND delegations toe party line on contraception

WASHINGTON -- A battle prompted by the controversy over mandated insurance coverage for birth control might not be settled after a particularly partisan vote Thursday in the U.S. Senate.

The Senate halted a controversial amendment that would have given employers and insurers broad discretion in denying health care coverage for any service they found "morally objectionable."

The 2010 health care reform requires employers to provide free coverage of preventative services to women. The provision stirred up fury a few weeks ago among Catholics and other religious groups, prompting President Barack Obama to exempt them from the mandate for First Amendment reasons.

Senate Republicans aimed to strengthen that exemption Thursday by pushing for the so-called Blunt Amendment, named for its sponsor Missouri Republican Roy Blunt.

By a narrow Democratic victory, though, the Senate tabled the measure with a 51-48 vote. Sole GOP support came from Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe.

Minnesota's Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar and North Dakota's Kent Conrad, all Democrats, voted with the majority in halting the amendment.

North Dakota Republican John Hoeven voted against tabling it, joining fellow Republicans who heralded the amendment as a defense of religious liberties.

Democrats said the proposal went too far in giving employers and insurers the power to opt out of any provision in the health care reform act, which Republicans aim to repeal.

The issue might be put to bed in the Senate, but a few measures circling in the U.S. House will keep it on Congress' radar.

While a vote hasn't yet been set, House Speaker John Boehner indicated Thursday he remains committed to the fight.

"It's important for us to win this issue," Boehner told reporters. "The government is moving in a direction that would force some Americans to violate their religious beliefs. This is wrong, and we want to stop it."

Minnesota and North Dakota's congressional leaders remain generally split along party lines on the debate, as are the dozen congressional candidates this year in North Dakota.

Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson -- a pro-life Democrat -- is the outlier among the region's elected delegation.

He supports the House version of the Blunt Amendment, along with 214 other congressmen who have signed on to it, including North Dakota Republican Rep. Rick Berg.

"I am a strong supporter of protecting conscience rights," Peterson said. "I believe that federal policy should respect the conscience rights of those who, for moral or religious reasons, oppose abortion."

Daum is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.