WASHINGTON -- President Bush maintained his unbroken string of vetoes yesterday despite an all-out effort by House Democratic leaders to best him finally on the explosive issue of banning abortion counseling at federally financed clinics.
But the 24th notch on Mr. Bush's veto pen was a politically costly victory in a fight he would rather not have fought.
Following an intense lobbying effort by both sides, the House failed yesterday to muster the two-thirds majority necessary to prevail on legislation that would have overturned federal regulations that prohibit abortion counseling at public health clinics receiving federal funds.
It was an embarrassing loss for House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., who had confidently predicted Monday that Democratic forces had the votes for the first time in three years to put a measure into law without the approval of the Republican president.
The 276-156 tally -- in which all members of the Maryland delegation voted to override the veto -- came barely three hours after Mr. Bush formally rejected the measure. The count fell 12 votes short of the total needed to override. Speaker Foley's troops had picked up only four more votes than the last time the House voted on the measure.
But the showdown also followed months of unsuccessful efforts by congressional Republicans to win a compromise on the counseling issue with anti-abortion hard-liners in the White House. They were similarly disappointed yesterday.
"I deeply regret that the president has chosen to take this position," said Representative Marge Roukema, R-N.J., one of many in her party troubled by the administration's stand on what they see as a question of free speech and the right to sound medical advice.
Representative Vin Weber, R-Minn., who had also been seeking tTC a compromise but sided with Mr. Bush in the end, observed: "The president ought to feel pretty good about this. . . . This was an issue where it was very hard for us to demand party loyalty. . . . This was a tough one."
Anti-abortion groups, which had to wait nine of the 10 days available to the president to see if he would make good on the veto threat, were jubilant. "This is a victory for those Americans who oppose the use of abortion as a method of birth control," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee.
The House vote put an end to congressional action on the "gag-rule" controversy for this year, as the lawmakers turn now to resurrecting the $205 billion appropriations bill for education, labor and health programs in which the abortion language was contained.
White House officials, alarmed by Mr. Foley's prediction of an override, were clearly relieved. They dreaded the prospect of Congress' handing Mr. Bush his first veto defeat, then adjourning next week for the year.
Already sharply criticized for his handling of domestic issues, the president would appear to have lost his major source of strength against the Democratic legislators.
The showdown probably reaffirmed the president's credentials with the conservative wing of the GOP, from which he is likely to be under attack in the presidential primaries next year. But it nearly dooms an attempt begun recently to broaden the Republican Party's footing on the politically sensitive issue so that the majority of voters who support abortion rights would feel comfortable with GOP candidates.
Mr. Bush inherited the controversy from the final year of the Reagan administration, when staunchly conservative domestic policy aides imposed the counseling ban. The regulation bars health care providers at federally funded clinics from telling pregnant women that abortion is an option they might consider.
It was immediately challenged by abortion rights groups as unconstitutional. But when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the regulation in May, the Bush administration found the unwelcome problem on its doorstep.
Some administration officials had cautioned the president to look the other way as Congress moved to overturn the regulation. Failing that, Sens. John H. Chafee, R-R.I., and Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., were leaders among those pushing the White House for a compromise.
One potential deal was cleared as high as Mr. Bush's chief domestic policy adviser, Roger Porter, but couldn't get past the door of White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, a key Bush liaison to the Republican right wing.
Mr. Bush pointed out in his veto message that he had instructed the Health and Human Services Department to make sure that the regulation would not affect conversations between doctors and clinic patients.
But supporters of the bill said that was inadequate. They argued that in many clinics doctors are unavailable and that advice is provided by other types of health care counselors.