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On Birth Control, Obama Saved By The Taco Bell?

Well. Just when it looked like Barack Obama had wound himself into the ultimate pretzel on the new rule mandating that employers, including large Catholic institutions, cover birth control in their health plans, it looks like he may be saved by a striking overreach by his formidable foe.

For the past week, the White House has been on the defensive against critics, including not a few liberal Catholics, who argued that the administration was violating religious freedom by applying the new birth control coverage mandate to large Catholic employers like hospitals and universities (actual churches are exempt.) In recent days, the administration has tried to shift the debate to the issue of women's health and gender equity, arguing that the mandate will have widespread benefits for women who would otherwise have a hard time affording some contraceptives. While saying it was still looking for ways to tweak the the rule to allay concerns, it has pointed to data showing that the vast majority of women, including Catholic women, use birth control, and to polling showing that majorities of most groups, including Catholics, support broad access to birth control. Meanwhile, opponents have grown only more vocal, with Mitt Romney decrying "attacks on religious liberty," John Boehner calling for congressional action against the new rule and even some Democratic politicians urging a reversal. Jonathan Cohn sums it all up very well here.

It was becoming clear that the political battle would be won by whoever managed to frame the issue in its favor: as a matter of women's health and access to birth control, which most Americans support, or as a matter of constitutionally-protected religious freedom, which many Americans hold dear. And hanging in the balance, of course, are crucial swing voters next November. Well, for some reason the Church has decided to make it easier for Obama administration to frame it on its terms: as a matter of easing access to contraception for all women. Check out the latest development in Wednesday night's report from USA Today:

The rule goes into effect Aug. 1, but if objections are raised, another year's extension is possible. That was no consolation to Catholic leaders. The White House is "all talk, no action" on moving toward compromise, said Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "There has been a lot of talk in the last couple days about compromise, but it sounds to us like a way to turn down the heat, to placate people without doing anything in particular," Picarello said. "We're not going to do anything until this is fixed."

That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether, he said, not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers. He cited the problem that would create for "good Catholic business people who can't in good conscience cooperate with this."

"If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I'd be covered by the mandate," Picarello said.

Yes, the fight that the church's defenders thought was about protecting Catholic Charities and St. Mary's school down the street from purchasing health plans that violate their leaders' conscience is now, as the Church sees it, also about protecting the right of all employers -- including, apparently, fast food franchises -- to deny contraception coverage to their employees. Somehow I don't think this is what E.J. Dionne and many other heartfelt critics of the new administration policy had in mind. And somehow I suspect the White House may soon be ordering some Taco Bell chalupas to celebrate.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis