Abortion override fails in Senate Clinton veto of ban on controversial procedure upheld

September 19, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- For the second time in two years, the Senate has failed to override President Clinton's veto of a ban on a late-term abortion procedure that opponents call "partial birth."

The vote yesterday was 64-36, three shy of the two-thirds needed to override. Maryland's Democratic senators, Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, voted against an override.

While the debate, the graphic charts, the anecdotal stories and the vote itself were familiar, the stark mathematics of the November elections loomed large over the Senate.

The most politically vulnerable Democratic senators -- Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, Barbara Boxer of California and Patty Murray of Washington -- are all fierce supporters of abortion rights. Abortion opponents hope to pick up those seats and tip the balance in the Senate to enact the ban.

Since the House has twice overridden the president's veto with votes to spare, both sides have taken their struggle to the Senate. The loss of these three senators, who are at risk in part because of their continued support for President Clinton despite his involvement with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, could cost the president his protection on a policy that has kept many liberal women steadfastly in his corner.

Douglas Johnson, a lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee, said his side was looking for a net gain in the November elections of at least three senators who would vote with abortion opponents on this issue.

"There's certainly a real possibility that the Senate coming in in January might be able to override this veto," Johnson said.

Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, was also looking toward November, with more nervousness.

"Clinton has been extremely good in advancing women's policies," said Michelman, who conceded that even advocates of abortion rights had been "demoralized" by the president's involvement with Lewinsky.

"We have to convince people that these elections aren't about the president; they are about their concerns."

She said that yesterday's vote marked the 97th abortion-related vote in Congress since the Republicans took control four years ago and that advocates of abortion rights had lost all but 13.

Despite their loss yesterday, abortion opponents have found that their graphic descriptions of the controversial procedure, which they call infanticide, have provided an enormously successful strategy for advancing their cause on otherwise stable political terrain.

In the procedure, a fetus is partly delivered feet first; then the brain is suctioned out so that the skull can be collapsed and the head delivered the rest of the way.

By highlighting this particular procedure -- which opponents of a ban say it is not a defined medical procedure -- abortion opponents have won over some advocates of abortion rights and have helped cast those who want to keep the procedure legal as the extremists.

One of the abortion opponents' central tenets is that as long as Clinton is in the White House, the best chance they have of banning the procedure is through the ballot box.

"It is my hope," Republican Sen. Daniel Coats of Indiana said after the vote, "that the American people will choose to elect representatives this year who will continue to fight for the preservation of the ideals of life and opportunity."

Janet Benshoof, president of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, a New York-based group that fights for abortion rights through the courts, said the political climate made yesterday's victory a difficult one.

On one side, she said, was an $800,000 advertising campaign by abortion opponents to convert the votes of five senators. On the other was the weakened hand of some of the Senate's most reliable abortion-rights advocates and the president's perceived political weakness.

"The people in tight races didn't give this real aggressive leadership this time, frankly," Benshoof said.

"And the president has not been calling senators and twisting their arms. He has a lot of chits to call in to save himself from impeachment -- you think he's going to call them in on this?"

Pub Date: 9/19/98

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