By Donna Smith and Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - House Republican leaders are looking for a way to reshape the debate over the administration's new rule on birth-control insurance coverage before moving ahead with a bid to nullify the requirement.
Representative Jeff Fortenberry, who has introduced legislation on the issue, acknowledged hesitation by some fellow Republicans to take on the incendiary issue. But he said a delay could give Republicans time to recast the issue as a question of religious freedom rather than women's rights.
"We'll keep trying to appropriately frame the debate about this core American principle," Fortenberry said.
Representative Pete Sessions, who heads the House Republican campaign committee, said party leaders are not backing off. "We're not hesitant to do anything," Sessions said. "The successful rain dance has a lot to do with timing."
House Republicans have taken a cautious approach after the Senate, mostly on party lines, rejected a measure that would have allowed employers with moral objections to opt out of birth control coverage and other services.
The administration's plan would require employers, including charities and other religious institutions, to provide contraception coverage at no extra charge.
Senator Roy Blunt, who offered the Senate measure, said Democrats' framing of the issue as a women's rights question proved to be a problem. "We're not going to win that debate on birth control," said Blunt. But the debate over religious liberty is not going to go away."
The issue has made some Republicans cautious in an election year, when most voters are concerned about U.S. economic growth and job creation, said one aide.
A spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Republican leaders were still discussing with members how best to move forward.
Fortenberry said it is unclear whether his legislation will be the bill that moves forward in the House. But he believes he has the votes to ensure passage.
FIRST OBAMA, THEN REPUBLICANS
Obama faced an uproar from religious groups over the administration's birth control requirement. But he moved quickly to quell it by altering the rule so employers with religious affiliations would not be required to offer free birth control to workers.
Insurers would instead bear the onus to provide coverage.
Republicans said the compromise did not go far enough and announced plans to move forward with measures that would override the ruling.
Incendiary comments by conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke "a slut and prostitute" for speaking out in support of the Obama policy, helped Democrats reframe the issue to their political advantage, analysts said.
Limbaugh, who has lost advertisers who found his comments objectionable, has since apologized.
It looked like an attack on women and women are the majority of the electorate," said Jennifer Lawless of the Women and Politics Institute at American University.
A Kaiser Family Foundation survey last week of 1,500 adults showed nearly two-thirds of Americans favor Obama's policy, including clear majorities of Catholics and evangelicals.
A number of religious groups have filed lawsuits challenging the new rule.
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, a former congressional aide, said House Speaker John Boehner has good reason to schedule a vote on a measure to overturn the rule.
While jobs and the economy are the number one issue, this is one of those niche issues that can really make a difference in the election among Catholic voters," he said.
"They respond well to the issue of religious freedoms," he added. "If Catholic congregations hear that Republicans are on their side, that can only help them in November."