The Senate Thursday rejected an effort to vastly expand conscience exemptions to the Obama administration’s new birth control coverage rule, even as Republican presidential contenders continued to tussle over the issue.

The measure, an amendment proposed by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to a highway funding bill, would have allowed not only religious groups but any employer with moral objections to opt out of the coverage requirement. And it would have allowed such employers to do so in the case of not only contraception but any health service required by the 2010 health-care law.

The 51 to 48 vote to kill the amendment was largely along party lines, although three Democrats — Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) — broke ranks to support it, and Republican Olympia Snowe (Maine) opposed it.

All the Republican candidates have made the birth control issue a key part of their stump speeches in recent weeks, banking on conservative anger over what they contend is the rule’s narrow religious exception.

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