WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama, struggling with a political storm that hasthreatened to keep building, announced a birth control compromise Friday that he said would both protect religious liberties and ensure that the nation's women have access to free contraception.
After weeks of growing controversy, Obama backed off a recently announced requirement for religious-affiliated employers to provide free birth control coverage even if it runs counter to their beliefs. Instead, workers at such institutions will be able to get free contraception directly from health insurance companies.
"Religious liberty will be protected, and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women," Obama said in an appearance in the White House briefing room.
"I understand some folks in Washington want to treat this as another political wedge issue. But it shouldn't be. I certainly never saw it that way," Obama said. "This is an issue where people of good will on both sides of the debate have been sorting through some very complicated questions."
Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, head of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops, said the changes were a "first step in the right direction." But he also said there were too few details to know whether the changes addressed the church's objections.
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said that that initial response indicated church leaders were not yet convinced the mandate respected religious freedom. Boehner has said he believes the original measure violates First Amendment rights, and his office said Friday that he would seek legislation.
The president's abrupt shift was an attempt to satisfy both sides of a deeply sensitive debate, and most urgently, to end a mounting political nightmare for the White House.
Although the administration had originally given itself more than year to work out the details of the new birth control coverage requirement for religious employers, the president acknowledged that the situation had become untenable and demanded a swift solution.
Congressional Republicans as well as GOP presidential hopefuls were beating up on Obama relentlessly over the issue, and even Democrats and some liberal groups allied with the Roman Catholic church were defecting.
"After the many genuine concerns that have been raised over the last few weeks, as well as frankly the more cynical desire on the part of some to make this into a political football," Obama said, "it became clear that spending months hammering out a solution was not going to be an option. That we needed to move this faster." He said he directed the Department of Health and Human Services last week to speed up the process.
Women will still get guaranteed access to birth control without co-pays or premiums no matter where they work, a provision of Obama's health care law that he insisted must remain. But religious universities and hospitals that see contraception as an unconscionable violation of their faith can refuse to cover it, and insurance companies will then have to step in to do so.
The White House did get the backing of one important Catholic organization, as well as a prominent women's group.
"The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed," Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, a trade group representing Catholic hospitals that had fought against the birth control requirement, said in a statement.
Planned Parenthood also backed the revisions, saying the Obama administration was still committed to ensuring all women have access to birth control coverage, no matter where they work.
"We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman's ability to access these critical birth control benefits," Cecile Richards, the women's group president, said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., an ardent support of the original measure, was restrained in her response.
"I appreciate the president's unifying approach as we work to ensure that the American people continue to receive the benefits of health care reform," she said.
By keeping free contraception for employers at religious workplaces -- but providing a different way to do it -- Obama was able to assert he gave no ground on the basic principle of full preventive care that matters most to Obama.
Yet, it also was clear that the president felt he had no choice but to retreat on a three-week-old policy in the face of a fierce political furor that showed no signs of cooling.
Officials said Obama has the legal authority to order insurance companies to provide free contraception coverage directly to workers. He will demand it in a new rule.
Following an intense White House debate that led to the original policy, officials said Obama seriously weighed the concerns over religious liberty, leading to the revamped decision.
Before announcing the revamped policy at the White House, Obama called Keehan, Richards and Dolan.
The change just led to