WASHINGTON -- Failing to override a presidential veto yesterday, the Senate kept legal a form of late-term abortion.
Anti-abortion groups vowed retribution at the polls in November.
Three senators switched sides to oppose the procedure that opponents call "partial-birth" abortion and doctors call "intact dilation and extraction." But the drive to overturn President Clinton's veto of a ban on the procedure still fell eight votes short.
The vote was 57-41, well shy of the two-thirds needed to override the veto. The tally would have been just a bit closer, but in a procedural move, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott switched his vote at the last moment -- a parliamentary maneuver that leaves him the option of bringing the bill up for another vote.
The late-term abortion method has been one of the most divisive issues of this Congress and has figured prominently in debates over party platforms in this presidential election year.
The ban, which polls show has popular support, would have been the first congressional move to outlaw a particular abortion method.
Advocates of abortion rights called the ban the first step in a campaign to outlaw abortion again, but the ban's advocates say the abortion method is a gruesome procedure that borders on infanticide.
Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado sent word from the home-state hospital where he is recuperating from a motorcycle accident that he would have voted against the president if he had been able.
Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania joined two Democrats, Sam Nunn of Georgia and and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont in changing camps to oppose the president.
Specter said the Senate rushed the first vote on the issue after only one day of hearings, but said he had since had time to reconsider carefully.
"The line is really drawn between infanticide and the right to choose when the child is part way out of the mother's womb," he said.
He said he was being lobbied everywhere, even in the subway underneath the Capitol.
With the political pressure on and thousands of calls and letters swamping congressional offices, aides to another half-dozen senators said they did not know how their bosses would vote until the last moment.
Republican Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut even seemed to switch in the middle of his remarks on the floor. He began by detailing his qualms about the procedure but ended by saying he would not vote to overturn the veto. "However, I will do so with a growing personal anxiety that something very wrong is happening in our country," he said.
Debate on the issue was generally even more vivid than the discussion last week in the House, which narrowly voted to override the veto.
Sen. Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania Republican who led the Senate floor fight to overturn the veto, got into verbal sparring matches with several speakers on the other side when he asked each of them the same question: "If that baby had been delivered by mistake, if the head had slipped out by mistake, would that doctor have the right to kill it?"
He shouted the question repeatedly at Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey,while Lautenberg waved him off and kept talking.
"I'm not making that decision," Lautenberg finally shot back.
In a final appeal to his colleagues, Santorum shouted, "My God, this is not an appendix. It's not a blob of tissue. It's a baby! It's a baby!" and a real baby somewhere outside the visitor's gallery began shrieking, as if on cue.
Pub Date: 9/27/96