Iowa Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst blocked an attempt by Senate Democrats on Wednesday to pass legislation that would guarantee access to contraceptives nationwide should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn decadeslong precedent, as it did last month on abortion.
Ernst, a combat veteran, also voted against a procedural vote to advance legislation providing health care for military veterans impacted by burn pits. The Red Oak native voted to pass a previous version of the bill.
Some Senate Republicans raised objections to the Honoring Our PACT Act because it would reclassify nearly $400 billion in current Veterans Affairs spending from discretionary to mandatory accounts, thereby potentially freeing up more budget authority to increase discretionary spending on other domestic programs.
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“Senator Ernst supports the PACT Act and believes that if Senator (Chuck) Schumer gets to amend the bill due to his own incompetence, Republicans should be able to make this vitally important bill stronger without sacrificing a single dollar of care for our veterans,” Ernst’s office said in a statement.
The measure passed the Senate in June, 84-14, and by a 342-88 vote in the House. But technical corrections sent the measure back to the Senate for another procedural vote on Wednesday.
Twenty-five Republicans who supported the previous version of the bill, including Ernst, did not support the procedural vote to advance the bill.
Fellow Iowa Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley voted in favor of the procedural motion and voted to pass the bill in June.
Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn told Roll Call he expected the bill "ultimately will pass in some form or another," but Republicans are hoping there "will be a negotiation to eliminate some of the mandatory spending in the bill.“
U.S. Senate Democrats on Wednesday also tried to pass a bill that would codify a federal right to contraception, which the U.S. Supreme Court first recognized in a 1965 ruling.
Democrats argue that right is threatened by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision that overturned a federal right to an abortion and by Republican lawmakers in states across the country eyeing restrictions on birth control.
In a concurrence to Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion last month overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision from 1973, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the court should now review other precedents, including a 1965 ruling that affirmed the rights of married couples’ use of contraceptives.
Ernst objected to Massachusetts Democratic U.S. Sen. Ed Markey’s request for unanimous consent to pass the bill, saying the measure went too far.
Congressional Republicans, including Iowa Reps. Ashley Hinson and Mariannette Miller-Meeks -- who voted against a House-passed version last week -- said the bill would lead to more abortions, which supporters deny, allow the use of drugs not yet fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration and force health-care providers to offer contraceptives, even if that contradicted their religious beliefs.
Instead, Ernst offered a proposal that would allow people over the age of 18 to access birth control pills over the counter without a prescription. The bill would incentivize manufacturers of oral birth control to file for over-the-counter approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, giving those applications priority review and waiving associated application fees.
The FDA is currently considering whether to approve over-the-counter contraceptive pills from HRA Pharma.
Ernst was joined by Grassley, Hinson and Miller-Meeks in introducing the bill.
In a statement, Ernst called the proposed measure “an important and common-sense step in expanding health-care choices and removing unnecessary hurdles, especially for those in rural areas who may need to travel long distances in some cases just to see their doctor.”
Senate Democrats contend Ernst’s bill fails to protect access to contraception, as it does not address many kinds of contraception covered under Democrats’ bill, such as long-acting reversible contraceptives, emergency contraceptives, injectables, vaginal barrier methods, transdermal patches and more.
Democrats, too, note that when purchased over the counter, costs typically come out of pocket and are not covered by health insurance. Meaning contraception could still be inaccessible to women if cost is a barrier.
“It’s a priority of mine to make sure that insurance does cover it,” Hinson said Monday during a walking tour of Main Street Vinton to meet with small businesses, which included a stop at a local pharmacy.
“We know that based on need there are many programs where women can access birth control for free,” Hinson said.
Senate Democrats introduced a bill last month to ensure that insurers fully cover over-the-counter birth control without any out-of-pocket costs.
Additionally, the bill backed by Iowa Republicans applies only to adult women, with no mention of teenagers who use birth control pills to help regulate their menstrual cycle as well as those who use it to avoid pregnancy.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that minors have a constitutional right to obtain contraceptives, and states can’t require parental consent.
“That’s a hormone going into your body. I think parents need to be in the driver’s seat there in terms of what’s best for their children,” Hinson said Monday.
Ernst’s office, in a statement Thursday, defended the bill, arguing it “expands health-care choices for women” and “she believes that’s the right approach.”