WASHINGTON -- It was billed as a showdown over abortion rights: Liberals and conservatives were to square off today over a measure to overturn a recent Supreme Court ban on counseling at federally funded family planning clinics.
But the anti-abortion strategists blinked and called the whole thing off -- underscoring, both sides agree, the growing strength of the abortion rights movement on Capitol Hill and around the country.
"There's just a greater willingness to allow abortions to be performed," said prominent anti-abortion Representative Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill. "The pro-life side doesn't wield the muscle it once did."
That fact was evident in the parliamentary fandango concerning a fiscal 1992 spending bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee handily approved the inclusion of a measure preventing the enforcement of the abortion counseling prohibition.
Conservatives had planned to force a vote today to strike that language from the bill. But facing the prospect of unambiguous defeat, they backed off, opting to wait for the final bill to reach President Bush's desk.
Representative Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., predicted that the president would veto any bill that included such a ban and, furthermore, that abortion rights forces would fail to muster the two-thirds vote in both houses necessary to override a veto.
"This is a tactical move," he said. "It doesn't affect the final outcome."
Nevertheless, as a newly conservative Supreme Court whittles at legal precedents that have protected women's rights to abortions, anti-abortionists have been dealt a series of stinging legislative rebukes, the latest of which, abortion rights supporters insist, was yesterday's tactical retreat.
"I think they see the momentum is not on their side," said Representative Les AuCoin, D-Ore. "Clearly, the momentum is with ours."
In recent months, abortion rights supporters have savored a number of small but significant victories. Committees in both the House and the Senate, for example, acted with unusual speed to reverse the Supreme Court ruling, waiting less than three weeks to vote to lift a Bush administration "gag-rule" ban on abortion counseling at federally supported clinics.
In a host of other abortion-related debates, anti-abortionists suffered comparable setbacks.
Earlier this month, Representative Smith was defeated, 234-188, his effort to strip $20 million from a fiscal 1992 foreign aid bill earmarked for the United Nations Population Fund because of its operations in China, where forced abortions are said to be rampant. Last year, Mr. Smith won a similar fight.
Last month, the House voted 220-208 to reverse a Pentagon policy prohibiting U.S. servicewomen and dependents serving overseas from obtaining abortions at their own expense at military health facilities.
In both cases, the margins of victory failed to clear the two-thirds threshold required to overturn a veto -- suggesting that the president would still win in a veto showdown over abortion.
But that, say lawmakers and political strategists, begs the question of whether it is in the interests of the president or the GOP to come down hard on the side of the anti-abortionists.
Indeed, some Republicans worry that the legal harvest of recent Supreme Court decisions will prove damaging to the party as it attempts to cement its lock on the White House and build its roster in Congress.
Earlier this month, Democrat John Olver squeezed out Republican Steven Pierce in a special election to fill the congressional seat of the late Massachusetts Republican Silvio O. Conte. Though Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district, no Democrat had held the seat in this century.
"The abortion issue pushed us over the edge," said Boston pollster Tubby Harrison, who worked for Mr. Olver. "People vote for the man, for his character, and they perceived Pierce to be unsympathetic on abortion."