MIAMI (CBS4) – “Is contraception wrong?” CBS4’s Jim DeFede asked Senator Marco Rubio in a recent exclusive one-on-one interview.
“In terms of?” he responds.
“Birth control,” I said.
“Of course not,” he replied. “Who says it is? You’re going to get into this whole argument about contraception. No one has ever said that contraception should be illegal, that contraception should be discouraged, that people should be looked down upon for using it. The only argument that there ever has been about this issue isn’t even about contraception, it’s about religious liberty.”
If Senator Marco Rubio sounds a little defensive on the issue it’s with good reason.
Earlier this year, Rubio co-sponsored the Blunt Amendment, a measure that would allow any employer to stop providing insurance coverage for items such as birth control if the employer finds those items morally objectionable.
The amendment was intended to counter a proposal by the Obama Administration – but many saw it as a massive over reach on the part of Republicans into the reproductive rights of women.
On its own, it is hard to know if the amendment would have stirred an ongoing debate.
But presidential candidate Rick Santorum set the stage for the controversy by vowing, if elected, he would use the presidency to rail against the use of contraception. “Many in the Christian faith have said, `Oh that’s okay, contraception is okay,’” Santorum told an interviewer. “We; it’s not okay.”
Then there was Republican Congressman Darrell Issa’s decision to hold a hearing on contraception but refuse to allow any women to testify.
And finally there were the comments by Rush Limbaugh about Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, in which the radio host called the coed “a slut” and “a prostitute” because she believed her school, despite its religious affiliation, should cover the cost of contraceptives.
Amid this backdrop, Rubio suddenly found himself at the center of a political firestorm.
Democrats, hoping to tarnish the possible vice presidential candidate, began referring to the Blunt Amendment as the Blunt-Rubio Amendment. The name stuck. And virtually overnight, Rubio was being accused of waging a war on women. Even Rubio admits Republicans lost the rhetorical argument.
“Well look rhetoric is powerful in politics,” he said, somewhat chagrined. “You have a very effective communicator as President, who has gone around saying, `This is about contraception, this is not about religious liberty.’ Early on in the debate it was about religious liberty. Unfortunately the rhetorical argument was lost.”
And with it could go the presidential election. Recent polls show that in twelve key swing states – including Florida – President Obama has now opened as much as a twenty point lead among women. Pollsters argue it is largely the result of the contraception controversy.
“So how much damage has this ended up causing the Republican Party?” I asked Rubio.
“I don’t know,” he said bluntly. “I don’t know the answer to that. “
During a recent interview with CBS4 News, Rubio spoke at length for the first time about the controversy. And although the amendment he co-sponsored is dead, he continued to defend his position
“The question is whether the federal government should have the power to require a religious organization to pay for something that the religious organization teaches against,” he argued. “And if the federal government has the power to do that, then what limits to its power does it have? What religious liberties do we have? That was the fundamental argument here. “
“But isn’t it then a dramatic shift in power to the employer,” I countered, “who suddenly has almost like a fiefdom over his employees and can decide, based on his moral beliefs, what he will provide for his employees?”
“I don’t believe that is the way the law could be applied,” he said. “I don’t believe that somebody could all of a sudden decide, `Hey I change my mind, I’m all of a sudden not going to provide for any health insurance coverage that covers this because I think it’s wrong.’”
Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski — who voted for the Blunt-Rubio amendment – recently declared she made a mistake. And in a radio interview in Alaska last week, Murkowski said she was advising her colleagues to rethink their efforts to undermine access to birth control.
“It makes no sense to go down this road,” she said. “It makes no sense to attack women. And if you don’t view it as an attack on women then you need to go home. You need to talk to your wives, you need to talk to your daughters [and] ask them if they feel this is an attack.”
“First of all it’s not an attack on women,” Rubio told me when I read Murkowski’s comments. “Nor is she saying that it is. I think what she is saying is that is how it is being perceived. And as I’ve told you before rhetoric is reality in politics.”
I asked Rubio if he had taken Murkowski’s advice and spoken to his wife about how women perceive this debate.
“You know I haven’t had a conversation with her about the bill in particular,” he said. “Early on I did, when it had to do with religious liberty, and I think most Americans early on felt like it overstepped the bounds of religious liberty.”
Rubio might want to consult with his wife on the issue — and although her vote might not be in doubt, there are a lot of independent women voters who are dumbfounded that in 2012 their access to contraception is being threatened.
You can see more of Jim DeFede’s exclusive interview with Senator Marco Rubio on “News and Views with Eliott Rodriguez” Sunday, April 15 at 11:30 a.m.