In an election-year pitch to female voters, Democrats on Wednesday pressed for legislation that would restore free contraception for women who get their health insurance from companies that object on religious grounds.
The Senate scheduled an afternoon vote on advancing the bill, which responds to last month's Supreme Court ruling that businesses with religious objections could deny coverage under President Barack Obama's health care law.
Republicans were expected to block the measure, which they deem a political stunt with no chance of becoming law. Many in the GOP have endorsed the court's decision as upholding the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
Democrats have seized on the contraception issue as they look ahead to November with hopes of energizing voters, especially women, in typically low turnout midterm elections.
The party's Senate majority is in jeopardy. Democrats must defend more seats and Republicans are upbeat about their prospects of gaining the six seats necessary to secure control.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who is in a competitive re-election bid, summed up her party's argument on the issue.
"A woman's health care decision should be made with her doctor, with her family, with her faith, not by her employer with her employer's faith," Shaheen said in a Senate speech.
Republicans said the Democratic effort was merely a move to boost struggling incumbents and that both parties support a woman's right to make her own health care decisions.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Democrats "think they can score political points and create divisions where there aren't any by distorting the facts."
McConnell joined with two Republican women, Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fischer of Nebraska, in backing legislation that would reaffirm current law on access to contraception and in calling for a Food and Drug Administration study on whether contraceptives could be sold over the counter without a prescription.
In one of the most closely watched races in the country, McConnell faces Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in his bid for a sixth term.
National statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that more than 99 percent of women ages 15 to 44 who have had sexual intercourse have used at least one form of contraception.
"I trust women to make their own health care decisions, and I don't believe their employers should have a say in them," said Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, a chief sponsor of the legislation with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Udall faces a tough race against Republican Rep. Cory Gardner in November.
In Colorado in 2008, female voters were critical to Udall's election to the Senate, favoring his candidacy 56 percent to 41 percent while men backed him 50 percent to 46 percent, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research for The Associated Press and other news organizations.
In the 2012 presidential election, Democrats overall captured the female vote by double digit margins as did the party in House races -- 55 percent to 44 percent -- when Obama won re-election. Democrats enjoyed a slightly better edge in the 2008 elections when Obama captured his first term and Democrats maintained their congressional majority.
It was far different in the 2010 midterm elections, some eight months after Obama signed the health care law and as the tea party energized the GOP. Female voters backed Republicans 49 percent to the Democrats' 48 percent in a low-turnout election that enabled the GOP takeover of the House.
No wonder that on the other side of the Capitol on Tuesday, Democrats stood with various women's groups to speak out for the legislation. They cast the Supreme Court decision in the case of Hobby Lobby, the Oklahoma-based chain of arts and craft stores that challenged the contraceptives provision, as five male justices on the court voting against the interests of women.
"I wish they could have had a conversation with their mothers, their wives, their daughters," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said the court's decision has "awakened the pro-choice majority in this country."
In Kentucky, NARAL began a 30-second, black-and-white ad criticizing Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell for his opposition to the legislation. The tag line said, "Mitch McConnell will never do the right thing for Kentucky women."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the Democratic bill is "just political messaging, inartfully done." He said the Congress could be acting on plenty of legislation, but at the "end of the day, we're doing nothing."