In Battle for Senate Seats, 3 Is Also Pivotal Number
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 19, 1998; Page A11
Much of the focus on Senate campaigns this fall has been on Republican hopes of making a five-seat gain, producing a "filibuster-proof" majority of 60 GOP senators, the number of votes needed to cut off debate. But within that larger context there is another struggle going on between the two bitterly divided sides in the abortion debate.
In this battle, the magic number is not five but three: the number of votes by which abortion opponents failed last month to override President Clinton's veto of legislation to ban a controversial late-term procedure that opponents call "partial-birth" abortion.
Every year there are dozens of skirmishes in Congress over abortion and family planning-related issues. But partial-birth abortion has become the most high profile, a rallying cry and fund-raising vehicle for both sides in the dispute.
It is also, abortion rights advocates acknowledge, the issue on which they are most vulnerable and most likely to lose the support of some of their usual allies. In the 64-to-36 vote to override Clinton's veto, 13 Democrats joined all but four Senate Republicans to support the override, just falling short of the 67 votes necessary. Leaders of abortion rights groups do not expect the Nov. 3 elections to alter the antiabortion majority in the House, which has twice voted to override Clinton's veto of legislation banning the late-term procedure.
And that makes the Senate elections "really critical," said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL).
"If we lose that margin we have, that three-vote margin, we're likely to have legislation that really will hasten the undoing of Roe v. Wade," the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, Michelman added. "If we lose any of these guys it's going to give the right wing much more power to pursue their anti-choice mission."
Abortion opponents also see high stakes in the Senate elections. A recent fund-raising appeal by Gary L. Bauer, conservative activist and potential GOP presidential candidate, included a "confidential" memo from Peter Dickinson, executive director of Bauer's political action committee, the Campaign for Working Families. "In all my years in politics, I have never seen such a wonderful opportunity for the pro-life movement," Dickinson wrote, going on to list six Senate races that the organization has targeted.
"I think there are clearer big targets in play in the Senate," Dickinson said in an interview. "There are races with clear differences between the candidates that make them high profile. Five to 10 seats will swing and that could lead to a very solid conservative majority or a more tenuous one."
Of the 34 Senate seats at stake in November, 23 are held by senators who voted to override Clinton's veto and 11 by those who voted to uphold it. In the 15 races considered the most competitive, there are nine senators who voted to override and six who voted to support the president.
The defeat of some of the 15 Democrats who are seeking reelection would not necessarily be a setback for abortion rights advocates, at least not on the partial-birth abortion issue. Sens. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), both in tough reelection races, voted to override the veto. So did Sen. Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.), who is retiring.
But beyond that, both sides in the abortion debate have zeroed in on essentially the same list of Senate races.
At the top of that list are four embattled Democrats who have been consistent supporters of abortion rights. They are the three women who were first elected in 1992 Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Carol Moseley-Braun (Ill.) and Patty Murray (Wash.) and Sen. Russell D. Feingold (Wis.). Feingold's opponent, Rep. Mark W. Neumann (R), has already used the partial-birth abortion issue in a campaign ad.
For the first time in its history, Planned Parenthood has endorsed political candidates and formed a political action committee to make direct contributions, which provide a road map to what abortion rights supporters consider the most important Senate races. According to Nina Miller, director of the Planned Parenthood Federal PAC, the organization has given the maximum of $10,000 for the election cycle to Boxer, Feingold and Murray and $6,000 to Moseley-Braun, who appears to be the most vulnerable of the four.
In those races, abortion rights advocates are essentially playing defense as they seek to protect some of their strongest allies in the Senate. But to offset almost inevitable losses, they also hope to make inroads against abortion opponents. One such hope rests with Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has received the maximum general election contribution of $5,000 from Planned Parenthood in his race against Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.).
Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood, said the organization will spend more than $1 million on political activity this year, including independent expenditures by a separate arm, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
NARAL will spend about $2 million in campaigns, Michelman said. The organization has already sponsored television ads in New York and California and will have mailings, phone banks and other get-out-the-vote drives in Illinois, Wisconsin and Washington state.
Carol Long Tobias, director of the National Right to Life Committee's PAC, said that organization does not disclose its spending or targeted races but that they are "the same dozen everybody else" has targeted. Two races that Tobias described as among the closest in the country are cases of the antiabortion movement playing defense the New York contest and North Carolina, where abortion opponent Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R) is in a tight race against Democrat John Edwards.
In his fund-raising appeal last month, Bauer, the conservative activist, said that the Senate contests in California, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina and Wisconsin are especially important to social conservatives. But Dickinson said that the Campaign for Working Families has also made independent expenditures on behalf of Rep. Linda A. Smith (R-Wash.) in her race against Murray and is hoping to spend about $300,000 on a number of races in the last month of the campaign.
"In politics you go from one week to the next," he said.
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