The Senate yesterday narrowly rejected a proposal to allow abortions in overseas military hospitals as it struggled to complete action on the fiscal 1991 defense bill and leave town for a month-long summer recess.
The Senate voted 58 to 41 to overturn a two-year Pentagon ban on abortions in hospitals on U.S. military bases in foreign countries, but fell short of the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture and force a final resolution of the issue.
This had the effect of keeping the current policy, which allows military hospitals to perform abortions only to save the life of a woman. For military personnel stationed abroad, the policy often forces women to turn to off-base facilities offering inferior care or travel long distances for safer procedures, according to critics of the policy.
Amid expressions of deepening concern over Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the Senate strayed little from the script laid out earlier by its Armed Services Committee on a variety of other issues, ranging from battleships to troop levels and pay.
Voting 59 to 40, the Senate rejected a proposal by Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) to reduce the 312,000 U.S. troops in Europe by 80,000 instead of the 50,000 proposed by the Armed Services panel.
While Conrad argued that the further reduction would send Europe "a message that it needs to pay for its own defense," committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said such a large cut could undermine NATO cohesion and harm morale among U.S. troops.
The committee's proposal for a total force reduction of 100,000, or nearly triple the 38,000 reduction proposed by the administration, would reduce overall U.S. troop strength to about 1.9 million, dropping below 2 million for the first time in 40 years.
The Senate then voted 55 to 44 against an amendment by Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) to retire three World War II-vintage battleships that were pulled out of mothballs by then-President Ronald Reagan, rather than the two battleships proposed for retirement by Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney.
Bumpers originally called for scrapping all four of the active duty battleships but modified his proposal in hopes of picking up support. Among those who argued most ardently against Bumpers's proposal were senators from Texas, Hawaii and other states targeted for home ports for the warships.
The Senate voted 67 to 32 to defeat a move by Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) to increase the proposed military pay raise for next year from 3.5 to 4.1 percent, which Glenn said would more nearly approach the anticipated increase in private sector wages. But Nunn said the cost would approach $2 billion over five years, forcing "enormous" personnel cutbacks to make up the difference.
The Senate defeated a proposal by Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) to transfer $100 million in unused military funds to the Department of Health and Human Services for care of crack cocaine-infected babies.
While fear of a widening war in the Middle East gave the Pentagon's Senate champions new ammunition for their argument that the world remains a dangerous place in spite of improved U.S.-Soviet relations, senators said it was changing few if any votes on specific issues. "It may not change any votes but it sure sounds good," one senator observed after the battleship vote.
In debate over the abortion ban, Sen. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.) argued that the Pentagon's policy discriminates against military personnel and their dependents stationed overseas because they often do not have access to off-base care that is available in the United States.
While use of government funds to finance abortions except to save a woman's life has been outlawed since 1979, Wirth said, women were able to pay for abortions in military hospitals until 1988, when even privately financed abortions were banned in the hospitals.
Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.) said the key issue was "government facilitating a procedure than many Americans find repugnant." Humphrey said he had been informed by the White House that President Bush would veto the defense bill if the abortion policy was changed.
As it worked late into the night, the Senate rejected, 52 to 45, a proposal from Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) to cut spending for development of anti-satellite weapons from $158 million to $77 million.
It signaled its intention to bar the Pentagon from proposing further domestic U.S. military base closings for a year while a five-year force structure plan is developed, and then reversed itself, 54 to 43, to drop the idea.