WASHINGTON JEFF LEEDS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — WASHINGTON -- The Senate cleared the way yesterday for 3.1 million federal workers to receive health insurance coverage for abortions for the first time in almost a decade, reversing the policy of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush and handing abortion supporters a clear victory.
The Senate approved a government spending bill without the long-standing abortion coverage ban after Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski used a parliamentary maneuver to quickly defeat an amendment that would have preserved the ban. The amendment was defeated 51-48, shutting off what was expected to be an hours-long debate on abortion.
A spokesman for GOP Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who offered the amendment, said the senator was surprised by the speed of the Senate vote but conceded that "the battle is over." An official at the government's Office of Personnel Management, which supervises health benefits for federal workers, said the new coverage could be available by January.
Under the current benefits package for federal workers, abortion coverage is available only if the life of the mother was endangered. Before the prohibition went into effect, 17,000 abortions were covered annually by federal insurance plans.
The House has already passed the same spending bill approved by the Senate without an abortion coverage ban. The two versions still face a conference committee report and approval by both chambers, but it is considered highly unlikely that the ban could be reinserted in the legislation before going to President Clinton for signature.
"This is a done deal," said a Senate aide involved in the effort to line up support for lifting the ban. "This is definitely a victory. I think our opponents are very unhappy."
Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, vowed to continue the fight against government-sanctioned abortions when Congress considers health care reform later this year. Mr. Clinton is expected to include abortion coverage for all Americans in his basic health benefits package.
"A narrow majority of senators apparently think the taxpayers should subsidize abortion as a method of birth control," Mr. Johnson said. "The close vote indicates that unless abortion is dropped from President Clinton's national health bill, that bill will die in the Senate -- by filibuster, if not by majority vote."
The ban on abortion coverage for federal workers, which has been in effect since 1984, "discriminates against one type of medical condition," Ms. Mikulski said in a Senate floor speech. "Congress should not single out a benefit that is available to women in the public sector for exclusion."
"Federal workers should have the same rights as employees in the private sector," an elated Ms. Mikulski said afterward. The women of the Senate "did a lot of homework," adding they were ready "to stand sentry" until the ban was lifted.
It was the second time Ms. Mikulski used a parliamentary ploy to advance the cause of abortion coverage for federal workers.
Last month she used similar means to keep the ban out of the government spending bill when it was considered by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Mr. Nickles' amendment would have permitted women to purchase a separate policy to cover abortions.
As soon as Mr. Nickles finished presenting his alternative plan, Ms. Mikulski rose from her seat and challenged the amendment as extraneous to the appropriations bill and out of order under Senate rules.
At that point, Mr. Nickles called for an immediate vote on the germaneness of the amendment to avoid an unfavorable ruling by Senate parliamentarian, who could have killed it without a vote.
A vote followed immediately, and the amendment lost. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland joined Ms. Mikulski in voting against the amendment.