The Senate, despite personal appeals from President Reagan, yesterday refused to break a liberal filibuster against legislation that would restrict abortions.
The roll call vote was 41 to 47. This meant anti-abortion senators, who had predicted defeat, fell 19 votes short of the 60 required to invoke cloture, the legislative term for limiting debate.
Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) said there would be new attempts to crack the six-day filibuster on Monday and Tuesday, when the votes were expected to be much closer because some anti-abortion senators have not yet returned from Labor Day recess.
Among those opposing the move to curb debate were 18 Republicans, some of whom had been the objects of an escalating White House lobbying effort on behalf of anti-abortion legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).
Reagan injected himself into the abortion debate Wednesday in letters to nine wavering GOP senators, saying, "It is time to stand and be counted on this issue."
The president yesterday telephoned about six more senators while aboard Air Force One en route to Kansas, according to White House spokesman Larry Speakes.
Reagan, in a speech at Kansas State University, repeated his support for the Helms proposals.
"We have a sacred duty to protect the innocent human life of an unborn child," the president said.
But Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, accused Reagan of "driving one more nail in the coffin" of GOP fortunes by entering the abortion debate.
Packwood, leader of the anti-abortion filibuster, said conservatives who "want to drive evil spirits" out of the party have pressured Reagan to campaign for the social issues of the New Right, including abortion and school prayer.
"You start downhill, a little at a time. . . . You write off union members, write off blacks, write off Jews, write off women, and finally you're a permanent minority party."
Packwood voiced similar criticism about Reagan last March, but fell silent when an effort was made to oust him from his chairmanship of the campaign committee.
Helms' proposal, an amendment to a bill to raise the federal debt limit, would permanently prohibit the use of federal funds for abortions and abortion research or training. It declares the Supreme Court "erred" in its 1973 decision legalizing abortion, and sets up an expedited process for the high court to review that decision.
Both Helms and his opponents claimed victory yesterday. The North Carolina Republican said the vote "was very encouraging" because many of his supporters were absent. Three key Republicans were traveling with Reagan -- Sens. Robert J. Dole and Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.
Helms said many senators traditionally oppose cloture motions the first time they come to a vote. If opponents had the votes to defeat him on the floor they would end their filibuster, he said. "You don't filibuster when you have the votes."
All four senators from Maryland and Virginia voted against cloture.
William Hamilton, a lobbyist for the Planned Parenthood Federation, a group favoring legalized abortion, claimed absent senators would have given Helms "six or eight more votes at most. We think the vote was terrific," he added. "It was much better than we expected."
However, Sen. Lowell P. Weicker (R-Conn.), a filibuster leader, said he was "very uncertain" of the outcome of the abortion debate, and is determined to continue the filibuster. "I'd far rather see Congress handle these issues in 1983," he added.