WASHINGTON-- Under fierce election-year fire, President Barack Obama on Friday abruptly abandoned his stand that religious organizations must pay for free birth control for workers, scrambling to end a furor raging from the Catholic Church to Congress to his re-election foes.
He demanded that insurance companies step in to provide the coverage instead.
Obama's compromise means ultimately that women still would get birth control without having to pay for it, no matter where they work. The president insisted that he had stuck by that driving principle even in switching his approach, and the White House rejected any characterization that Obama had retreated under pressure.
Yet there was no doubt that Obama had found himself in an untenable position. He needed to walk back fast and find another route to his goal.
The controversy over contraception and religious liberty was overshadowing his agenda, threatening to alienate key voters and giving ammunition to the Republicans running for his job. It was a mess that knocked the White House off its message and vision for a second term.
Leaders from opposite sides of the divisive debate said they supported the outcome, or at least suggested they probably could live with it. Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York, the head of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops and a critic of the original rule covering hospitals and other employers, said the bishops were reserving judgment but that Obama's move was a good first step.
At least one Republican who is hoping to oust Obama from the White House was conceding nothing. Though not mentioning the birth control issue, Newt Gingrich assailed the president's views of religious rights and said, "I frankly don't care what deal he tries to cut. ... If he wins re-election, he will wage war on the Catholic Church the morning after he's re-elected."
Obama, acknowledging that he wanted a resolution to the controversy, ordered advisers to find a middle ground in days, not within a year as had been the plan before the uproar. He said he spoke as a Christian who cherishes religious freedom and as a president unwilling to give up on free contraceptive care.
"I've been confident from the start that we could work out a sensible approach here, just as I promised," Obama said.