Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent thinks that Barack Obama's mandate that private insurers must provide free contraceptive and abortive drugs could split the GOP. But Sargent notes that two northeastern Republican senators, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Scott Brown of Massachusetts, both still firmly support a bill protecting the rights of conscience.

"The president’s proposal leaves religious institutions vulnerable to federal coercion," Ayotte said in a statement released by her office today. "This debate has always been about religious freedom. As I fight for a full repeal of Obamacare, I will continue to push for a legislative solution that protects conscience rights."

“Senator Brown appreciates President Obama’s willingness to revisit this issue, but believes it needs to be clarified through legislation," a Scott Brown spokesman told Sargent. "The senator signed onto bipartisan legislation that writes a conscience exemption into law, which is an important step toward ensuring that religious liberties are always protected.”

But might Maine senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins be going wobbly? Sargent points us to the following statements:

“It appears that changes have been made that provide women’s health services without compelling Catholic organizations in particular to violate the beliefs and tenets of their faith,” Snowe said in a statement. “According to the Catholic Health Association, the administration ‘responded to the issues [they] identified that needed to be fixed,’ which is what I urged the president to do in addressing this situation."

“While I will carefully review the details of the president’s revised proposal, it appears to be a step in the right direction,” Collins said in a statement. “The administration’s original plan was deeply flawed and clearly would have posed a threat to religious freedom. It presented the Catholic Church with its wide-ranging social, educational, and health care services, and many other faith-based organizations, with an impossible choice between violating their religious beliefs or violating federal regulations. The administration has finally listened to the concerns raised by many and appears to be seeking to avoid the threat to religious liberties posed by its original plan."

The Snowe statement definitely seems to indicate that she thinks Obama's revision actually fixed the problem, but the statement by Collins is more circumspect and echoes what we heard early on Friday from New York archbishop Timothy Dolan. The United States Council of Catholic Bishops, after reviewing the proposal, forcefully came out against it. Perhaps Collins, and maybe even Snowe, will do the same?

Liberal Catholics who supported Obamacare, such as the head of the Catholic Health Association, say Obama's revision fixes everything. But a number of public figures who know a thing or two about accounting gimmicks in Obamacare--critics such as Yuval Levin, Rep. Paul Ryan, Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page--point out that the revision is a distinction without a difference. It's ridiculous to believe, as Obama claims, that the insurers of religious employers--not the religious employers themselves--will be footing the bill. "Ultimately, all insurance costs are passed on to the purchaser," writes Greg Mankiw.

If you thought Obama's original mandate was a violation of religious liberty, you should think his modified mandate is a violation of religious liberty. And even if you see a substantive improvement in his new proposal, it is still the case that Obama's mandate doesn't even pretend to protect religious institutions that are self-insured. And even if you think this particular problem is fixed, that doesn't mean it's a bad thing to restore conscience protections that existed prior to the passage of Obamacare.

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