The Obama administration's new requirement that most health insurance plans provide contraceptive services has exploded into a high-octane political weapon, with combatants on both sides scrambling to score points among the electorate and gin up fundraising from their most ardent supporters.
In Congress and on the campaign trail Wednesday, Republicans attacked the rule as another example of government overreach, Exhibit A in the case against President Obama's healthcare law, while Democrats asserted the GOP was trying to turn back the clock on women's rights.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), a Catholic, fueled the political firestorm by making a rare floor speech vowing to block the requirement that most faith-based employers, including Catholic ones, offer contraception, regardless of their religious beliefs. Churches and other houses of worship are exempt.
The campaign of Mitt Romney, a leading candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, said the rule "compels religious institutions to violate the tenets of their own faith," and Romney vowed to strike it down.
Democrats and Republicans used the controversy to appeal for contributions from their traditional political bases, a strategy that carries risks as well as rewards. At a time when independents and moderates can sway general elections, turning up the heat on a social issue could prove distracting and annoying to voters who are more concerned about unemployment and the sluggish economy.
Amid the rising clamor, administration officials are exploring the possibility of implementing the rule so that religiously affiliated employers could offer supplemental policies, known as riders, for contraception or direct workers to insurance companies that sell such riders.
Even if Catholic voters and independents agree with the White House on substance, the administration doesn't want to appear insensitive to the concerns of the Catholic Church.
Women's groups would be likely to vigorously oppose any alteration of the rule.
"It's absolutely amazing in the year 2012 there is controversy over women's access to birth control," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) during a conference call with other Democratic lawmakers. "One's health benefit should not depend on who the boss is."
Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, although emphasizing that their top priority remains jobs, focused escalating rhetoric, and most of the day's attention, on the administration's birth control policy.
"This attack by the federal government on religious freedom in our country cannot stand and will not stand," Boehner said.
Other GOP presidential hopefuls have chimed in too. Rick Santorum accused Obama of trying to "impose his secular values on the people of this country."
Newt Gingrich labeled the policy "the most outrageous assault on religious liberty in American history."
But polls indicate that voters, even Catholic ones, agree that contraceptives should be offered by health plans, even those of faith-based employers. That gives Democrats hope they can benefit from the high-stakes battle.
"This makes Republicans look more extreme," said Eddie Vale, a spokesman for Protect Your Care, a health advocacy organization that has been leading attacks on GOP candidates opposed to the new healthcare law. "It's another concrete benefit they want to take away."
The contraceptive rule takes effect in August, but the administration has granted religiously affiliated organizations an extra year to implement it.
The rule requires that all health plans provide preventive healthcare services, which include cancer screening and wellness exams as well as contraception, without imposing cost-sharing, such as co-pays or deductibles, on employees. The administration already has granted narrow exemptions from the rule for churches, other houses of worship and religious organizations at which employees primarily share the same faith.
But larger faith-based institutions, such as universities or hospitals where workers typically hold a variety of religious beliefs, must comply with the rule. That has generated fierce opposition from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops because of the church's longtime stance against contraceptives.
The White House struck a careful tone Wednesday, emphasizing Obama's search for "balance."
"He is very sensitive to concerns like these, and he wants to find a way to implement this important rule, because he is committed to making sure women have access to this coverage," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. "He wants to find a way to implement it that can allay some of the concerns that have been expressed."
Meanwhile, activists mobilized for battle, using the issue to raise money.
Labor and health advocacy groups allied with Democrats plan a blitz this week in key battleground states: Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee declared in a fundraising pitch: "Our right-wing opponents continue to launch attack after attack against women's rights, women's health, and women's economic security — and we've got to fight back every single day."
The National Republican Senatorial Committee also launched a petition and donation drive. "The Democrats are using Obamacare to force religious groups to defy their deeply held beliefs," the group said on its website. "Where has our freedom gone?"
The Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group led by longtime conservative leader Ralph Reed, asked supporters in an email, "Have you had enough of Obama's war on religion?"
If so, the email said, sign a petition and make a contribution now.
Kim Geiger and Noam N. Levey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.