WASHINGTON ---- You might think that Sen. David Vitter would observe a lifetime moratorium on public moralizing after his phone number was found in the little black book of a prostitution ring's madam.
But there he was in the House TV studio on Wednesday afternoon, informing a bank of cameras about President Obama's inferior conscience, as evidenced by a new rule that requires employers to provide birth-control coverage.
"Never before in the history of the country have Americans been forced to buy a product ... that is opposed to their core religious beliefs," the Louisiana Republican tut-tutted, sharing the stage with two dozen House members. The administration's subsequent effort to exempt religious organizations "may be good enough for President Obama's conscience," Vitter said, but "it's not good enough for the conscience of millions of Americans."
The continuing contretemps concerning contraception offers a reminder that in Washington, the usual laws of physics don't apply. For some actions, there is a completely disproportionate reaction.
After Obama set off a furor with the initial rule, he retreated last week, proposing to shift the birth-control mandate from religious employers to insurers. Although Catholic bishops continued to object, Americans appeared to settle on a consensus: In a new CBS/New York Times poll, 65 percent of voters supported the birth-control mandate (most voters, even most Catholics, also were content to force religious groups to provide the coverage).
But on Wednesday afternoon, Republican lawmakers and Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, a Democrat who opposes abortion, marched before the TV cameras to reject Obama's accommodation of religious groups.
"This doesn't solve the problem at all," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga.
Said Lipinski: "Despite the current views out there that this is all settled, this clearly is not settled."
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who recently gained attention for saying the first lady has a "large posterior," took a bigger view: "The modification that was announced by the president last Friday is probably worse than the original."
But the solution the lawmakers proposed was a bit too convenient. They called for the passage of a bill that was introduced last year, so by definition it wasn't a response to the birth-control rule. As they described it, the legislation would exempt from the health care law any person who wishes to claim any moral or conscientious objection. In other words, it would be a back-door way to repeal Obamacare.
There was not a huge amount of interest in the lawmakers' theme: The 16 reporters seated at the start of the news conference were outnumbered by the lawmakers onstage. Still, the politicians were careful to get their visual effects right (only five of the 28 were women, but four of them were clustered around the microphone) and they couched their argument in the loftiest terms.
"It is the reason why people came to the United States of America 200-plus years ago," said Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y.
To escape birth control?
"Because this country offered religious freedom," Buerkle explained.
Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, told the reporters, "I implore all of you to read the First Amendment and memorize it."
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., furthered the appeal to the reporters' shared support for the First Amendment. "I want you to read the quote from Martin Niemoller," she said of the Holocaust-era poet, then began to recite. "They came for the trade unionists and I didn't speak up. They came for the Baptists; I didn't speak up."
Actually, Niemoller mentioned communists but said nothing about Baptists. "I'm paraphrasing," Foxx said.
But if the lawmakers are so concerned about a threat to the Constitution, why don't they challenge the rule in court? "Why should we have to?" replied Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tex., who displayed for the cameras a pocket-size Constitution highlighted in yellow.
Well, because the courts are where constitutional matters are resolved. Congress is where political fights are waged ---- and the conscientious contraception objectors were ready for one.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., accused Obama of "a direct, obnoxious, unprecedented government attack on the conscience rights of religious entities." Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., called it "an incredible provocation" and a bid to "manipulate the conscience of many Americans."
A reporter asked the assembled moralists whether they would reject any presidential candidate who mandated that religious groups cover contraception. It was a trap: Mitt Romney left such a law unchallenged when he was governor of Massachusetts.
Onstage, several members began to mutter: "That's not the issue ... We're focused on this ... Don't try to distract."