The Senate passed a District of Columbia budget bill yesterday after holding firm against efforts to impose a ban on publicly financed abortions, similar to one approved by the House of Representatives.
A mjaority of senators also rejected an attempt to cut federal assistance to the city by $58 million, to the level approved by the House.
The abortion ban was rejected, 55 to 34, after a debate that centered more on home rule than on the morality of abortions. The action keeps the Senate on a collision course with the House.
But the collision must wait until September, when Congress returns from a month-long recess. A joint Senate-House conference committee then must resolve differences between the two versions of the bill.
Both would provide an operating budget of nearly $1.4 billion for the 1980 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, but the Senate is $45 million more generous in its spending allowance than the House.
The Senate would help support the budget with a $249 million federal payment, compared with the House's $191 million. Since the District must make up any revenue gap from its own tax sources, the Senate version leaves local taxpayers ahead by about $12 million.
Sen. William V. Roth (R-Del.), contending the District payroll is bloated with employees, sought to cut the federal payment to the House level. He lost in the attempt, 60 to 28.
Only a half-dozen senators were on the floor when Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the Senate's most active anti-abortion crusader, launched his effort to amend the bill to prohibit city-financed abortions.
Since the Senate repeatedly has debated the abortion issue in considering national legislation, Helms dealt with the issue only briefly. He said he would "#fight just as hard for the right to life of children in the District of Columbia as...in other parts of the country."
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), D.C. Appropriations subcommittee chairman, floor manager of the bill and a personal opponent of abortion, challenged Helms. The proposed ban, Leahy said, "interferes with the home rule rights of the District of Columbia."
Like all 50 states, the District already is prohibited by national law from spending federal Medicaid money for abortions.
Sen. Donald Riegle (D-Mich.) accused Helms of violating his philosophical support for states' rights. The District, he said, can be compared to a state.
Helms was ready for that. Waving a copy of the budget bill, he said it contained many congressionally dictated restrictions on District government - including a ban, dating to the early 1930s, on fare meters in taxicabs.
"The preservation of human life," Helms declared, "is a lot more important than a meter in a taxicab."
After that, the roll was called. Leahy told reporters that the 55-34 margin of defeat was wider than he had expected. Earlier in the week, Leahy said, he had feared the vote might go the other way.
It might have happened, Leahy said, because "we've got a vestigial, old-plantation hold over the city budget."
All four senators from Maryland and Virginia voted against the ban.
Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.), ranking minority member of the D.C. Appropriations subcommittee, described the budget in his opening statement as "a lean one, and I hope it is an adequate one."
Roth later said the budget is far more than adequate - that the District uses 146 employees to do what states and local governments, on the average nationally, can do with 100.
A cut in the federal payment would force efficiency and be "an example for the rest of the country," Roth said.
Leahy replied that the spending side of the budget had been cut $85 million below the city's request, dispelling any notion that "I am...some kind of Santa Claus."
After Roth lost his effort, 60 to 28 Mathias told reporters that in some ways, the decision on federal payments was the more significant of the two votes. He said a reduced federal payment would adversely affect the quality of life in the whole region - in suburban Maryland and Virginia as well as the District.
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) voted against Roth's amendment, but the two Virginia senators, Harry F. Byrd Jr. (Ind.) and John W. Warner (R) did not get Mathias' message and supported Roth.
Final passage of the budget bill came on a roll-call vote of 77 to 12.