An intense battle over taxpayer-funded abortions halted congressional action on the District's 1994 budget yesterday, as abortion-rights supporters struggled to lift a five-year ban on publicly financed abortions in the city.
The House of Representatives abandoned plans to vote on the D.C. budget and delayed action until next week amid furious lobbying on both sides of the abortion issue.
Proponents of abortion rights acknowledged yesterday that they may not have enough votes to pass a budget that would remove a congressionally imposed ban on publicly funded abortions in the District.
On Wednesday, the House narrowly defeated a D.C. budget that would have ended the ban. After the 224 to 206 vote, senior lawmakers quickly proposed a compromise that would forbid the District to use federal money for abortions but permit the use of local tax revenue. They retreated from today's scheduled vote on the compromise when doubts emerged about how it would fare on the House floor.
"It's a question of votes," said Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly (D-Conn.), a chief deputy House whip and an abortion-rights supporter. "We're working."
Kennelly was one of several District supporters who attended a private strategy session on the budget yesterday afternoon. The D.C. budget is now expected to come before the House Tuesday or Wednesday. Meanwhile, Congress passed legislation yesterday that extends funding for the D.C. government until midnight Thursday.
The outcome of the abortion battle will have a significant impact not only on District residents, but on the congressional politics of abortion.
Until 1988, when Congress imposed the ban, the District government regularly paid for elective abortions for poor women.
Current law forbids the District to pay for abortions except in cases of rape or incest or when the life of the woman is threatened. Almost none have been paid for since the ban took effect.
In Congress, the battle over abortion funding in the District has assumed increasing importance because it foreshadows national battles over the issue. One question about President Clinton's national health care program is whether it will include money for abortions. Lawmakers on both sides of the abortion fight say the D.C. controversy will shed some light on Congress's feelings about abortion funding.
Supporters of abortion rights had hoped to make substantial gains in Congress this year after Clinton, who favors abortion rights, succeeded George Bush, an abortion opponent. So far, however, abortion foes have proved stronger than expected, winning passage of legislation that forbids paying for abortions with Medicaid funds.
Abortion opponents argue that the compromise version of the District budget is no compromise at all.
"To refer to the D.C. government's use of 'federal' or 'local' funds is a distinction without a difference," said Maggie Wynne, director of the House Pro-Life Caucus. The compromise "would pay for just as many abortions as the bill" that was defeated Wednesday.
D.C. officials have argued that the city should have the right to determine how to spend its own money, just as states do.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said Wednesday that congressional efforts to impose abortion policy on the District effectively "tell the capital of this nation to go to hell."