Republicans find themselves on the defensive over the issue of contraception, only a week after they sharply attacked President Obama for attempting to require religious institutions to offer birth control coverage.
Democrats are criticizing House Republicans for hosting a hearing on Obama’s contraceptive policy Thursday in which eight of the ten witnesses were men. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents Washington, D.C., actually walked out of the hearing, while other Democrats slammed the session, which was hosted by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Republicans defended the hearing as being about freedom of religion, not abortion. The title of the session was “Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?” Most of the witnesses were religious conservatives who oppose the president’s policy, which would exempt religious institutions from having to offer birth control coverage but require insurance companies to provide it.
WATCH MSNBC COVERAGE OF THE CONTROVERSIAL FOSTER FRIESS COMMENTS:
[MSNBCMSN video=”http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32545640″ w=”592″ h=”346″ launch_id=”46432356^700^208020″ id=”msnbc53e4fd”]
The more damaging controversy for the GOP may be a comment from Foster Friess, a wealthy Republican who is bankrolling the Super PAC that supports Rick Santorum. In an interview NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Friess said “back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives.”
He added, “the gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.”
The debate comes as polls show last year’s week birth control debate, which pitted the president against traditional allies like former Democratic National Committee chair Tim Kaine, did little to hurt his standing among Catholics. Gallup found support among Catholics was effectively the same as before the controversy.
The emergence of birth control as an issue may be particularly challenging for Santorum, who in an interview year called contraception “not okay,” arguing it leads to sex outside of marriage.
Santorum is perhaps the most socially conservative of the GOP candidates and leads in polls among religious conservatives, who have been resistant to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
But attention to his controversial views on contraception could hurt Santorum if Republicans think it will make him a weaker opponent against President Obama. Polls have shown Republican voters are very eager to find an “electable” Republican to back.
In interviews, Santorum has tried to distance himself his ally’s remarks.
“Foster is a well known jokester. That was a stupid joke. I’m not responsible for every bad joke that someone who I happen to know or who supports me tells. Obviously I don’t agree with the basic premise,” Santorum said.
Friess offered an apology on Friday for his comment, writing “I kindly ask your forgiveness” on Twitter to people “who thought I was callously encouraging that (aspirin) as a prescription for today.”
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr