Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, center, leads Senate Democrats' news conference on Capitol Hill, March 1, 2012.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, center, leads Senate Democrats' news conference on Capitol Hill, March 1, 2012.

The U.S. Senate has narrowly defeated a Republican measure that would have reversed a new Obama administration mandate that employers provide free birth control as part of health insurance coverage.  It was an emotional debate on Capitol Hill.

The Senate vote Thursday was a very close 51-48. One Republican voted with most Democrats to kill the amendment, and three Democrats voted with most Republicans against killing the measure, proposed by Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri.

Most Republicans lawmakers and the four Republican presidential candidates say President Barack Obama?s health care law violates religious liberties because it would require employers to cover the cost of contraception as part of their health care insurance plans.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he did not expect to have to defend religious freedom on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

?Recent actions by the Obama administration related to the president?s health care law have prompted many of us here and many across the country to stand up in defense of another freedom that is covered in the First Amendment, and that is religious freedom," said McConnell.

The president?s birth control coverage mandate originally exempted churches, but not religious institutions such as colleges and hospitals, from providing birth control to employees.  Facing outrage from some religious organizations, the president quickly offered an accommodation that also would exempt religious institutions.  But most Republicans still think the health care law is an overreach by government.

On the other hand, most Democrats accuse Republicans of trying to turn back the clock on women?s health care rights.  

Senator Blunt attached the amendment to an unrelated transportation bill, which Democrats say Congress should be focusing on to create millions of jobs at a time of high unemployment.  Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California:

Two-point-eight million jobs are at stake and we are debating birth control," said Boxer. "And I think this is resonating in the country.  You know all of a sudden people wake up and they say, ?What are they doing there?  What is happening there?

The Republican majority in the House of Representatives also has vowed to challenge President Obama?s birth control coverage mandate, and some state legislatures across the country are debating measures to limit access to birth control and the so-called "morning after" (emergency contraception) pill.