Washington -- THE WHITE House has been quietly trying to find a compromise on the touchy issue of whether federally funded clinics should be allowed to offer advice on abortion to their clients.
The operative question is whether the Democrats will once again allow President Bush to extricate himself from a political box.
Or, alternatively, will the Democrats in Congress recognize that the 1992 presidential campaign already has begun and hold Bush's feet to the fire?
Appropriation bills overturning the so-called "gag rule" imposed by the Supreme Court last summer remain to be finalized by a conference committee.
In the aftermath of the court decision, Bush -- riding high with 21 vetoes and no overrides -- vowed to stick with the extremists of the anti-abortion movement and veto any bill overturning the gag rule.
But the politics of the issue has turned out to be somewhat different than the White House apparently expected.
The opposition to the gag rule has not been limited to the activist abortion rights groups Bush is willing to defy but also has developed strongly in the medical community, which no one would consider either leftish or activist.
Thus, the prospect has arisen -- as it did on the civil rights bill compromised out last week -- that enough Republicans would defect to override a presidential veto on abortion. Next year is, after all, an election year for the House and one-third of the Senate as well as the president.
Sources in both parties say the plan floated by the White House at one point called for Bush to sign the appropriation bill for the coming fiscal year that includes a section over turning the gag rule for the same period.
But the president would try to take the curse off by including language calling for a study commission on the issue to report back a year later -- meaning, of course, after the 1992 presidential election.
The benefits for Bush would be obvious. He would avoid the risk of a veto override.
And he would soften the image he has acquired, deservedly, as an extremist on the abortion issue at a time when there is #F growing strain within the Republican Party on the question.
The only down side politically is the likelihood he would evoke a backlash among his fellow extremists. But where are they going to go?
Given the political equities, the Democrats would be playing dumb politics if they let the president off the hook with some cover story about a "study commission."
They already have done the same kind of thing by agreeing to essentially meaningless changes in the civil rights bill that will allow Bush to tell the electorate he has saved us all from a "quota bill."
It can be argued, of course, that the important thing for the Democrats in Congress is to pass the legislation, whether it is the civil rights bill or the reversal of the gag rule.
But President Bush has taken the hardest line on abortion funding, even to the point of ruling it out of appropriation bills for the District of Columbia. And it would be a mistake for the Democrats to allow him to slide easily off the hook.
Either he changes his mind, and suffers whatever political consequences ensue, or he doesn't. The one thing of which Democrats can be certain is that he will exploit politically any opportunity he is given -- as he most assuredly will do by claiming next year that he thwarted a quota bill.
The problem for the Democrats in Congress is that their leaders generally don't think in terms of presidential politics. If Bush favors a gag rule, he should be put on the spot and required to act on that belief, not allowed to muddy the issue.
In the case of abortion, as opposed to civil rights, that approach also would be sound congressional politics. Opinion polls and election returns consistently show strong majorities against government intrusion into the decision on abortion, as well as the gag rule specifically.
The fact that the White House has been willing to consider compromise on another gut issue may be a symptom of a White House far less sanguine about 1992 than it appeared to be a few months ago.
With the economy in the pits, the president is showing signs of being on the defensive on domestic issues. The Democrats would be missing a bet if they don't make this new political climate clear to the electorate.