WASHINGTON -- The Democratic-dominated Senate set the stage yesterday for a showdown with the Bush administration over abortion policy, taking steps to repeal regulations prohibiting federally funded family planning clinics from dispensing abortion advice.
In a 64-35 tally, the Senate rejected a Republican compromise requiring the nation's 4,000 federally funded birth control clinics to refer women with unwanted pregnancies elsewhere for information on prenatal care, adoption or abortion.
The action cleared the way for a veto confrontation with the White House, as the Senate moved toward an expected vote today to end the prohibition altogether.
By many accounts, it is just the sort of confrontation the White House does not want -- one that could underscore the growing power of the abortion-rights movement while highlighting the Republican Party's vulnerability on the abortion issue.
The latest fight in the long-running abortion battle was joined May 23, when the Supreme Court upheld regulations banning abortion counseling at federally funded family planning clinics. A month later, the House retaliated, overwhelmingly approving legislation to eliminate what had come to be known as the "gag rule."
The House action threw the matter over to the Senate, where administration officials worked feverishly -- and, it seems, futilely -- to broker a compromise.
Last week, Mr. Bush indicated a willingness to find a middle ground on the issue. Meanwhile, in a letter to Senate leaders, the White House Office of Management and Budget warned that the House bill would be met with a veto.
"His intention is to ensure that no federal funds are used to support abortion," the letter stated, going on to say that if the House's bill "is presented to the president in its current form, he will veto it."
At the moment, it looks as if Mr. Bush will have to make good on his promise. Abortion-rights advocates contend that a ban on abortion advice inhibits free speech and prevents poor women -- frequent clients of family planning clinics -- from getting the kind of medical advice available to those who can afford private doctors.
"In my mind, this is the first step to who-knows-what in government intrusion in medical care," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md. "If I were the [American Medical Association], I'd be up in arms over this."
Supporters of the ban retort that the federal government already distributes funds to agencies and non-profit groups for pre-conception family planning -- not for abortion services. The program, commonly known as Title X, disburses $144 million annually to fund clinics used by an estimated 4.5 million women.
"This is not a question of free speech or medical ethics," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah. "It is a question of using public funds for advocating, promoting or performing abortion."
The bill before the Senate would overturn the Supreme Court's ruling, allowing government-financed centers to offer abortion advice, though not requiring them to do so. The legislation would, for example, permit clinics or employees to refuse for religious or moral reasons to provide abortion advice.
The White House-backed amendment would have maintained the ban, but it would have allowed clinics to guide women to hospitals or other places where abortion advice is available.