WASHINGTON -- President Bush has agreed to take a second look at regulations banning abortion counseling at federally financed clinics to see if there is any room for compromise with lawmakers seeking to overturn the controversial policy, officials said yesterday.
The president ordered a staff review of the history of the 1988 regulations and how they have been implemented partly in response to Republican senators who complained that the real issue is not abortion but privacy and the potential for violation of the doctor-patient relationship.
Mr. Bush's decision to ask for further research on the rules, which were recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, also came after the House voted overwhelmingly two weeks ago to reverse them. A similar proposal passed the Senate by a slightly less substantial margin last year. The decision to conduct the review was reported in yesterday's Washington Post.
"We may be faced with a veto, and we want to be prepared to consider our options," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. The margin of the vote in the House raised the specter of a congressional override of a Bush veto, something that has never happened before.
Administration officials insist that the president is not contemplating any change in his basic opposition to federally financed abortions, on which his political advisers believe that he must remain consistent or else face revived charges of flip-flopping on an issue that dogged him during the early days of his vice presidency under Ronald Reagan.
Bush legislative aides say they don't know yet whether there is any way to compromise on the counseling regulations themselves.
"At this point, we're just trying to figure out how we got to where we are and what the practice at the clinics has been," said one senior official.
At the center of the controversy is a set of regulations promulgated by the Reagan administration and suspended by court challenges shortly after they took effect. As part of implementing a ban on federal financing of abortions, the regulations declared that family clinics receiving federal funds should not even advise their pregnant clients that abortion was an option.
A storm of outrage greeted the Supreme Court ruling in May that upheld the regulations. Many members of Congress, including prominent Republicans, have announced their support for a drive to void the regulations legislatively.
Following early rumblings on Capitol Hill that Mr. Bush would not stand in the way of such an effort, the president took the unusual step June 4 of formally advising congressional leaders well in advance -- "to make sure there is no misunderstanding," he said -- that he would veto any such legislation if it came to his desk.
The House moved forward anyway, attaching an amendment that would undo the court ruling to a $203.2 billion spending bill that was approved June 26 by a vote of 353-74, well above the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
Representative Vin Weber, R-Minn., insists that that tally is meaningless because it includes his vote and those of other opponents of abortion who did not want to reveal how close the margin might be if an override of a veto was attempted.
Mr. Weber maintained yesterday that his forces could sustain a veto, and he won White House assurances that talk of any compromise in the House was "premature," said Sherry Burkholder, a Weber spokeswoman.
The Senate may act as soon as next week, however, on a separate measure to void the counseling regulations, sponsored by Sen. John H. Chafee, R-R.I., and 45 other senators.
Mr. Chafee and Senate Minority Leader Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., won a promise from Mr. Bush at a meeting June 27 to take a new look at the regulations based on their complaint and those of leading medical organizations that a more fundamental principle than abortion was at stake.