Congress votes 255-178 to maintain 16-year ban on subsidized abortions

July 01, 1993|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Mounting frustration among women and blacks, many of them freshmen members of Congress, exploded in a near shoving match on the House floor yesterday as conservative forces won a fight to maintain a 16-year ban on federally financed abortions for poor women.

"White Southern males still think they know what's best for poor women; the women have no choice," fumed Rep. Corrine Brown, a black freshman Democrat from Florida after the vote. "I've been here for five months, and things are still run by white men in blue suits."

In the first big test of the year on abortion, the House voted 255-178 in favor of its long-standing position to limit Medicaid abortions to cases of rape, incest or when the life of the woman is endangered by pregnancy.

The margin of victory for abortion foes signals poor prospects for the Freedom of Choice Act, which would limit restrictions states can impose on abortion.

It also threatens chances of abortion coverage being included in the president's health care legislation.

"It certainly wasn't a great day; in fact, it was most nasty and unpleasant," observed Rep. Nita M. Lowey, a New York Democrat who had been hopeful the ban on Medicaid abortions would be lifted.

Aides to President Clinton, who supports lifting the abortion restrictions, remained optimistic that more moderate language would come out of a joint conference committee with the Senate on the appropriation bill for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Rep. Don Edwards, D-Calif., another leading abortion rights advocate, said it was clear the influx of 114 new members in the House had not yet significantly changed the sentiment on abortion.

Among the Maryland delegation, the following Republican representatives voted in favor of keeping the ban: Roscoe G. Bartlett, Helen Delich Bentley and Wayne T. Gilchrest.

Voting against the ban were the following Democratic representatives: Benjamin L. Cardin, Steny H. Hoyer, Albert R. Wynn and Kweisi Mfume. Rep. Constance A. Morella, the Montgomery County Republican, also voted in favor of lifting the ban.

The vote came in the midst of an emotional power struggle over procedure that took on racial overtones.

"We tell people: 'You can't have a job, you can't have an education, you can't have a decent place to live, but here's what we'll do, we'll give you a free abortion,' " observed Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Illinois Republican who has sponsored the so-called Hyde amendment for nearly two decades.

He suggested, in a reference he later attributed to Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, that some advocates of abortion take the view that, "There are too many of you people and we want to refine . . . the breed."

When Rep. Cardiss Collins, a black Chicago Democrat, announced she was "offended by that kind of debate," Mr. Hyde retorted: "I probably know your district better than you do. Talk to your ministers."

Pandemonium broke out as Mr. Hyde crossed the chamber to offer an apology to Ms. Collins and wound up offending much of the Women's Caucus and the Black Caucus.

Rep. Carrie Meek, a black Florida Democrat, was in tears and was consoled by colleagues when Mr. Hyde returned to his side of the aisle.

"He came over here and said: 'I'm trying to help poor black kids,' " reported Representative Brown, the Florida freshman, who expressed anger at conservative Republicans who oppose money for job training and other programs designed to help inner-city youth. "What hypocrites!"

Later, Mr. Hyde apologized on the House floor and ordered his remarks to Ms. Collins stricken from the record.

Yesterday's outburst was partly the result of long-simmering resentments among more liberal members who feel much needed new social spending is being forced to take a back seat to deficit reduction.

"I think there's a lot more going on here than just abortion," said Rep. Vic Fazio, a California Democrat who serves as co-chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "The disappointment among freshmen is more poignant because they came to Congress hoping to move the country more rapidly than they've been able to."

Even though legislators said there may be problems with the new Hyde amendment, the fact that it passed was considered significant.

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