Senate Democrats narrowly defeated efforts Thursday to repeal a portion of President Obama's controversial policy requiring insurers to pay for contraception coverage.

Missing from their ranks? Pennsylvania's Democratic Sen. Bob Casey.

In a vote that could feature prominently in his reelection campaign this fall, Casey broke from his party and backed a Republican amendment that would have allowed employers and insurance companies to opt out of medical coverage that conflicted with their moral beliefs.

"As I have made clear continuously, I strongly support contraceptives and have voted to provide funding for family planning," Casey said. "I also believe that religiously affiliated institutions should not be forced by the government to violate their beliefs."

While the vote may have put the first-term senator at odds with party leadership, it could end up helping his campaign, political strategists said.

The five Republicans running to unseat him have all made the senator's frequent support of Obama's policies a centerpiece of their attacks.

By breaking from his fellow Democrats on Thursday, Casey managed to demonstrate independence from the administration on an issue close to the social conservatives his GOP opponents are trying desperately to court, said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College.

Still, Casey's Republican opponents did their best to spin his vote in their favor.

"I can assure you," said Harrisburg lawyer Marc Scaringi, "this is merely the first in a train of abuses of our constitutionally protected liberties that ObamaCare will bring on the people of Pennsylvania and America, and Sen. Casey must be held to account for it."

Former State Rep. Sam Rohrer, of Berks County, and Armstrong County coal executive Tom Smith also piled on with pledges to work for the repeal of the entire Obama administration health-care plan.

And Steve Welch, the Malvern entrepreneur endorsed by the state's Republican committee, tried to take credit for Casey's Thursday vote. His campaign issued a statement minutes after titled "Casey takes Welch's advice and votes for repeal."

"It's nice to see that Bob Casey will occasionally vote the right way when he's in his reelection year," Welch said.

Thursday's 51-48 vote killed a Republican proposal put forth in response to a portion of the president's health-care law that would have required insurers to cover the costs of birth control.

Some religious employers criticized Obama's plan, saying it violated their constitutional rights by forcing them to pay for contraception even though their faith forbids its use. Last month, the president announced a compromise that moved the cost for mandatory contraceptive services to insurers.

But Casey argued that did not go far enough.

Meanwhile, his party maintained that the Republican fix - proposed by Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.) - was too open-ended and would have set the bar too low for insurers to opt out of any part of the president's health-care plan.

Aside from Casey, only two other Democrats - Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska - voted with the GOP bloc. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) also voted for the Blunt amendment.

Casey, a Catholic, has been relatively consistent in his antiabortion views and voting record on issues pertaining to religious liberties. He made known his disapproval of the contraception mandate for insurers the same day Obama announced the compromise measure last month.

His father - the late former Gov. Robert P. Casey Sr. - was an outspoken antiabortion advocate, serving as the lead plaintiff in the landmark 1992 case that became the first major challenge to Roe v. Wade.

The same year, he was denied a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention because he failed to endorse Bill Clinton over their disagreement on the abortion issue.

But Casey Jr. - while just as fervent - has been less outspoken.

That more-quiet support still managed to score him points with social conservatives in his 2006 run against then-Sen. Rick Santorum without alienating additional liberal voters in the southeastern portion of the state.

"Santorum would provoke an argument about his pro-life views," Madonna said. "Bob Casey is conciliatory and reaches out, even though his positions are quite firm."

Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist Larry Ceisler cautioned against concluding too quickly that politics motivated Casey's contraception vote Thursday.

"The thing with Casey is there are no surprises," he said. "He's really not the type of elected official who takes votes looking forward to an election."

Contact Jeremy Roebuck

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