WASHINGTON -- The Senate approved a bill by voice vote yesterday that would permit federally funded family planning clinics to dispense abortion advice, nudging Congress closer to a veto showdown with President Bush.
"The Senate has sent an extraordinarily powerful message," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. "Doctors ought to be able to practice medicine, and Congress shouldn't dictate policy."
Yesterday's action, the surprisingly quiet denouement of two days of heated and, occasionally, confused debate, came after the White House dropped its formal opposition on the Senate floor when administration supporters claimed they had enough votes to sustain a veto.
"This is just round one," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan.
Although the House overwhelmingly adopted similar legislation last month, anti-abortion activists expressed optimism that Mr. Bush's opponents would not be able to muster the needed two-thirds votes in both the House and Senate to override a presidential veto.
Whether or not that turns out to be the case, yesterday's Senate vote represented the latest evidence of the abortion-rights movement's growing clout.
On June 26, just a month after the Supreme Court upheld a Bush administration ban on abortion counseling at federally supported clinics, for example, the House voted overwhelmingly to overturn the ban.
Before that, conservative Republicans lost a battle to strip $20 million from a fiscal 1992 foreign aid bill earmarked for the United Nations Population Fund -- because, they said, of its operations in China,where forced abortions are said to be rampant. Last year, they had won a similar fight.
Earlier still, the House voted to alter an anti-abortion Pentagon policy, backing legislation that would permit women serving in the military overseas and their dependents to obtain abortions at their own expense at U.S. military health facilities.
"I sense a trend here," said Sen. John H. Chafee, R-R.I., an author of the legislation the Senate adopted yesterday. "The Supreme Court has issued a wake-up call to the rest of us."
Although the White House appears set to veto the emerging bill, it does not appear to relish the prospect. Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn., proposed an administration-backed compromise provision that, while barring clinics from offering counseling, would have allowed them to direct women to places where abortion advice is available.
The measure was defeated, 64-35. Although administration allies claimed that the vote, falling three short of the 67 needed to override a veto, demonstrated that the president would ultimately prevail on the issue, several Democratic aides thought otherwise.
"Basically, they chickened out," said one, arguing that the White House shied away from a roll-call vote yesterday out of fear that more than 67 senators would have openly supported the bill.
That kind of uncertainty pervaded the debate. On Tuesday evening, for example, the Senate voted 54-45 to allow a pregnant minor to decide whether to get an abortion.
Minutes later, the Senate voted 52-47 to require health care professionals to notify a parent or guardian 48 hours before performing an abortion on a minor.