WASHINGTON -- In an election year battle mixing birth control, religion and politics, Democrats narrowly blocked an effort by Senate Republicans to overturn President Barack Obama's order that most employers or their insurers cover the cost of contraceptives.

The 51-48 vote yesterday killed a measure that would have allowed employers and insurers to opt out of portions of the president's health care law they find morally objectionable. That would have included the law's requirement to cover the costs of birth control.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who this week dropped her re-election bid, citing frustration with the polarized Congress, cast the lone Republican vote to block the measure. Two Democrats up for re-election and one who is retiring voted against Obama's requirement.

Majority Democrats said the legislation would have allowed employers and insurers to avoid coverage for virtually any medical treatment with the mere mention of a moral or religious objection.

"We have never had a conscience clause for insurance companies," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Insurers, she said, don't need an invitation to deny coverage for medical treatment. "A lot of them don't have any consciences. They'll take it."

Republicans argued that the requirement under the health care overhaul violates the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom by forcing insurers and employers to pay for contraception for workers, even if the employers' faith forbids its use.

Roman Catholic leaders have strongly opposed the requirement.

The Senate vote aside, the debate "won't be over until the administration figures out how to accommodate people's religious views as it relates to these mandates," said the measure's sponsor, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). "This is a debate that might be settled at that building across the street," he said, referring to the Supreme Court.

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