WASHINGTON -- On a cliffhanger roll call, abortion opponents gained some new support in the Senate yesterday for banning what they call "partial-birth" abortions, but still fell three votes shy of enough to override a promised veto by President Clinton.
Yesterday's 64-36 vote was the largest margin so far in favor of the ban. It represented an increase of six since the Senate voted on the bill last fall.
And it included a high-profile switch by Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, who has long backed abortion rights but voted yesterday for the ban.
Sponsors of the ban pledged to press on to try to amass the few more votes needed to survive a veto.
The House has approved a nearly identical measure by a veto-proof margin.
"My intention is to override the veto," said Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican who is the chief sponsor of the bill, which would outlaw a procedure he likened to "infanticide."
"We just need two or three more; eventually we'll get them," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.
Even so, abortion rights supporters said they were relieved that their ranks had held relatively firm against an 11th-hour campaign for the ban that included a highly publicized endorsement by the American Medical Association.
"I was very worried about it," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, who helped lead the resistance to the ban. "I didn't know until we went over the top at 34 that we would be able to block an override."
Those voting against the ban included Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, both Maryland Democrats.
In opposing the ban, Clinton has demanded an exception to allow the procedure if deemed necessary to protect a woman's health. The Santorum bill would permit the procedure only when a woman is at risk of dying.
White House promises veto
"The president will veto the bill," said Mary Ellen Glynn, a White House spokeswoman. "The president wanted a narrow exception to the ban to protect the mother from serious health consequences, but they wouldn't give it to him."
The votes yesterday on behalf of the ban, though they fell short, were seen on both sides as a sign of momentum for abortion opponents. By highlighting the gruesomeness of the procedure, supporters of the ban succeeded in shifting the abortion debate away from the rights of the woman to the fate of the fetus.
The disputed procedure, known medically as intact dilation and extraction, calls for partly delivering the fetus feet first, then extracting the brain fluid to collapse the skull for removal. It is usually performed after the 20th week of pregnancy, when the fetus is able or nearly able to survive outside the womb.
"Most people think the law just allows abortion in the first trimester," Santorum said. "I think this is a first step in letting the American people know what abortion is really all about in this country."
Daschle said his "abhorrence" of the procedure had led him to depart from his record in support of abortion rights to try to find common ground with opponents.
Pressure from foes
The Democratic leader, who is facing a re-election race next year, has come under pressure from abortion foes in his home state of South Dakota, particularly from officials of the Roman Catholic Church.
Yesterday, he likened "their harsh rhetoric and vitriolic characterizations" to comments more typical of the "radical right than thoughtful religious leadership."
But Daschle's legislative bid to achieve a compromise failed by a huge margin last week. He sought to ban all abortions after the point at which a fetus could survive on its own, except in cases to protect the woman's life or to spare her "grievous" physical injury.
The Daschle bill was deemed too restrictive by some senators and too weak by others.
The Democratic leader said yesterday that he believed the Santorum proposal was probably unconstitutional based on the Supreme Court's past rulings because it would limit a woman's choices in the middle stages of pregnancy and makes no provision to protect her health.
Yet Daschle said he found he had "little choice" now, except to help pass the ban and send it to the Supreme Court. He predicted that the court would "certainly force those unwilling to compromise now to a more conciliatory approach later."
The shift in votes on the abortion ban between last fall and yesterday can be attributed partly to the change in the Senate membership from last year's elections. In several cases, retiring abortion rights supporters were replaced with abortion opponents.
Another new element was the admission last winter by Ron Fitzsimmons, an abortion rights advocate, that so-called "partial birth" abortions are far more common than had been portrayed by opponents of the proposed ban.
Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat who switched his position to back the ban, cited the Fitzsimmons comments.