After easily winning a preliminary test vote, Senate liberals yesterday said the volatile conservative "social issues" of abortion and school prayer are dead for this year.
They made that claim not because of anything they have done, but because they believe that conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a proponent of legislation to restrict abortion severely and legalize voluntary school prayer, has overplayed his hand. Predictably, Helms did not see it that way.
"The bottom line is I don't think these social issues are going anywhere this year," Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.) told reporters. "I think they are dead for the session."
Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), leader of a three-day filibuster against Helms' legislation, said there is "no chance" it "will be passed this year."
Packwood, Weicker and other liberals commented after a challenge of Helms' combined anti-abortion and school prayer legislation was upheld, 59 to 38.
But despite the liberals' optimism, the battle appeared far from over, and debate seemed certain to spill into September, when Congress returns from its Labor Day recess.
Helms dismissed the liberals' predictions. "Nothing happened to validate the outrageous suggestion" that the fight over the social issues is over, he said, adding that his head counts show enough conservative support to pass the measure. He said he lost yesterday's preliminary vote because senators did not understand what they were voting on.
The vote came in a moment of high drama on the crowded Senate floor. By agreement with Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), Packwood was scheduled to be recognized, but Helms outfoxed him by persuading his ideological ally, Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), to be chairing the body.
Thurmond repeatedly recognized Helms, who introduced to a debt-ceiling bill amendments to severely limit access to legal abortion and to eliminate Supreme Court jurisdiction over prayer in public schools.
Weicker and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) countered with separate amendments to weaken Helms' proposals and shift the long-awaited debate away from the merits of legalized abortion and prayer in public schools to the constitutionality of Helms' amendments.
Helms then moved to table Weicker's amendment, which stated that neither the Justice Department nor the federal courts could be blocked from fully enforcing the Constitution.
When Helms' motion to table failed by a surprisingly wide margin, an aide to Baker, who voted against Helms, described it as a "personality vote" that resulted from "a lot of people being put out" at how Helms had handled the abortion issue in the past week.
"There may not be as much support for Helms on the floor as he thought," Baker's press secretary, Tom Griscom, added.
Helms waited until yesterday to disclose the contents of his two amendments. Last week he reneged on an agreement allocating time limits for debate on the abortion issue. This alienated many moderates on the abortion issue who had hoped for a quick resolution before the Labor Day recess, scheduled to begin later this week.
Helms' abortion proposal, as disclosed yesterday, declares that the Supreme Court, in its 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, "erred in excluding unborn children from the safeguards afforded by the equal protection and due-process provisions of the Constitution," and would provide for an expeditious review of state anti-abortion laws.
It would permanently prohibit the use of federal funds for abortion, including research and training of medical students in federally funded medical schools. It also would prohibit federally funded health insurance policies from being used to pay for an abortion.
The amendment includes a finding, lacking the force of law, that "scientific evidence demonstrates" that life begins at conception.
The amendment on school prayer declares that the Supreme Court "shall not have jurisdiction" over state laws or lower court rulings that would permit a return to prayer in public schools. The high court outlawed such prayer in 1962.