The House voted last night for the second time in a week to reject the 1991 District spending bill, which would have restored the city's right to finance abortions for poor women.
After the 211 to 196 vote, the chairman of the House D.C. appropriations subcommittee, Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Calif.), said he will move this morning to strip the bill of the abortion funding provision and bring it back for another vote on the floor.
The action is expected to bring to a close for the year what has become an annual battle over the issue and to clear the way for final passage of the city's $3.9 billion spending bill for 1991.
The Senate is expected to pass the measure quickly once the House finishes with it, possibly as soon as today. The measure would then go to President Bush for his signature.
Antiabortion legislators hailed yesterday's vote as a major victory. "When members are allowed to vote their convictions, they're not going to vote for abortion," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.). "Once the language is fixed . . . this will pass almost unanimously."
The current law bars the use of public funds for abortions except when the mother's life is endangered.
But Dixon said the message of the vote was unclear because some lawmakers who otherwise are in favor of abortion rights have an "uncomfortable feeling" with the way the District is being governed.
"Until there is a clear up or down vote, I don't think anyone can declare victory," Dixon said.
City officials have hoped for an quick resolution to the standoff so that the city can obtain its $430 million federal payment -- money they say is needed to ease the District's serious cash crunch.
Until yesterday, however, the bill appeared headed for a certain presidential veto. Bush aides have said the president would veto the measure if it contained funds for abortion, as he did twice last year before Congress removed the abortion language.
The bill was defeated 211 to 185 on Saturday. Rather than alter the abortion language, House Democratic leaders decided to bring the matter up for another vote.
The leaders had hoped to prevail in the second vote because they believed some who opposed the measure the first time did so because they were angry at the city government or believed the bill would allow too much spending.
During debate before yesterday's vote, supporters of the spending bill aimed their arguments at these potential swing votes.
Dixon sought to assure colleagues that the bill was not a "budget buster," noting that it appropriates $8.6 million less than last year's measure.
He and other supporters also argued that the bill would help the next mayor trim the District government bureaucracy.
"This bill is not about Marion Barry -- Marion Barry is history," said Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.), a supporter of the measure. "Both of the candidates are dedicated to reforming the city government," he said, alluding to Democratic mayoral nominee Sharon Pratt Dixon and Republican nominee Maurice T. Turner Jr.
Candidate Dixon tried to persuade wavering Democrats to support the spending bill this week with a letter promising to live within employment ceilings set by the measure and saying that vital city programs could be damaged if the bill were defeated.
"One of the key planks of my platform has been a solemn pledge to cut the fat from the District government," she wrote. "I intend to keep that pledge."
But opponents of the measure expressed anger that the Democratic leadership allowed the bill to come back to the floor without stripping it of the abortion funding provision.
Smith accused the Democrats of seeking to "twist arms" to reverse last Saturday's defeat.
"You can talk about home rule all you want," said Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), a leading abortion opponent, referring to arguments made by Rep. Dixon. "I want to save human lives. Abortion stops a beating heart," he said.