The House yesterday approved legislation to prohibit taking a minor to another state for an abortion in order to circumvent parental consent or notification laws. But the measure failed to garner enough votes to override a potential presidential veto.
The 270 to 159 vote underscored the congressional stalemate over abortion, and advocates on both sides said they were looking ahead to the 2000 elections, which they predicted could break the legislative logjam in either direction.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who drafted the bill approved yesterday, said she was looking forward to the end of President Clinton's term so that a Republican president would shift the balance of power in favor of abortion restrictions.
"Support from the president will change a few of these votes. We're almost there," Ros-Lehtinen said. "It's just ludicrous to think we have to do this year after year."
The House passed Ros-Lehtinen's measure last year 276 to 150, but Clinton threatened to veto the bill and the Senate never took it up for consideration. Nine additional abortion rights supporters won seats in the House last fall, however, slightly eroding the antiabortion strength in the chamber.
The bill would subject violators to maximum penalties of a year in jail and a $100,000 fine. Lawmakers included an exception for the life of a mother, and said a guardian, a legal custodian or a person who has care and control of a minor would be exempt from the prohibitions in the bill.
"This bill is a reasonable and carefully crafted solution to a serious national problem," said Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.), adding that minors could still seek permission from a judge if they could not go to their parents.
But Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said the measure would prevent teenage girls from confiding in a trusted adult who could aid them in seeking an abortion.
"It doesn't matter if they're a sister, brother, grandmother, minister or rabbi," Baldwin said. "They would still be criminals in the eyes of federal prosecutors."
The administration recently reiterated its intention to veto the measure unless it is significantly modified.
The debate over transporting minors across state lines was one of a series of battles over abortion this year. Last month, the House narrowly approved a measure prohibiting the Food and Drug Administration from approving the use of mifespristone, commonly known as RU-486, which allows women to chemically induce abortions.
Both chambers have voted on the question of whether servicewomen can use their own money to pay for abortions on military bases. The House and Senate recently rejected lifting the current ban on such procedures, which provides exceptions for rape and incest, and the House imposed a new requirement that a servicewoman prove it was "forcible rape" if she wants an abortion on base.
As the House begins wading through annual spending bills, it likely will face a number of other abortion-related votes affecting federal employees, women in the District of Columbia and women in federal prisons.
Rep. James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.), an abortion rights advocate, said he was hopeful there would be "a dramatic reduction" in the number of abortion-related appropriations amendments this year because House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has indicated he hopes to complete work on the bills by early August.
By Greenwood also questioned why GOP leaders were bringing up controversial measures that were unlikely to become law.
"We continue down this path of having bills that motivate the base and not introducing bills that would appeal to swing voters," he said. "I don't think that presents an image of a competent, professional Congress focused on the public agenda."
Abortion opponents, however, said voting on the so-called Child Custody Protection Act for the second year in a row would raise public awareness of the issue and encourage antiabortion activists to turn out in next year's elections.
"It keeps it alive in the long run," said Helen Alvare, spokeswoman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
But Planned Parenthood Action Fund president Gloria Feldt, whose group plans to spend $3 million this election season in direct contributions and issue advocacy ads, said abortion rights activists see the 2000 elections as an opportunity to preserve a White House ally while gaining political ground in Congress.
"Once we show the virulently anti-choice members the door, we can quit going over old ground and pursue legislation that will make family planning and reproductive health accessible and available to all women," Feldt said.